Admirers say the Republican was always a dynamic speaker, but with flaws. He frowned. He tilted his head oddly and fell back repeatedly on the same words. He went for the rhetorical jugular. Supporters worried that TV cameras magnified those delivery problems.
Gingrich didn’t need to look far for help. In the building next to the one where Gingrich taught history at West Georgia College, professor Chester Gibson coached students whose ranks now include a former Georgia governor, high-powered Atlanta attorneys, judges and preachers. He gave Gingrich free help as a new candidate.
Strong debate performances have kept alive Gingrich’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination after a bleak period last summer when his staff quit and his campaign fell into debt. After a commanding performance in a pair of South Carolina debates, Gingrich has not performed as strong lately. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was considerably more aggressive in a Florida debate on Thursday, repeatedly putting Gingrich on the defensive.
Now retired, Gibson said he still sees Gingrich’s old habits — good and bad — in the presidential debates.
“Gingrich is clearly the best debater in the final four,” said Gibson, who communicates by email because doctors removed his voice box in 2010 during cancer treatment. “No contest. A Gingrich-Obama debate would be one of the great moments in American political history.”
The pair met in 1970 when they started teaching at West Georgia College, now called the University of West Georgia. Gibson coached Gingrich before his first unsuccessful run for the House in 1974 and kept working with him until Gingrich won four years later. Gibson said the coaching continued into Gingrich’s early years in office. A Gingrich spokesman did not respond to requests for information for this report.
Gibson, 70, said Gingrich’s problem was delivery, not substance.
“He was poised, confident, quick on his feet and well versed in both U.S. and world history,” Gibson said. “He read everything that he could get his hands on. His greatest asset was his incredible memory.”
In their coaching sessions, Gibson said he filmed Gingrich speaking so he could see his mistakes. The students on Gibson’s debate team — one was Randy Evans, now Gingrich’s longtime attorney — listened and critiqued Gingrich’s speeches. They researched the positions of his political opponents and constructed arguments. Gibson traveled with Gingrich to debates so they could practice in the car.
Gibson pushed his students to win.
“He just worked endlessly and worked us very hard because he was as competitive as all get-out,” said trial lawyer Paul Weathington, one of Gibson’s debaters and a nationally ranked debater in college.
Gibson told Gingrich to work on his body language. When listening intently to another speaker, he tended to frown — a bad habit that Gibson said the Republican candidate has not fully stopped. In fact, Gingrich recently told reporters that his granddaughter told him to smile more and that she counts his grins during debates.
“I am always pleased when I see a grin because I know that he is ready to launch into a great answer to the question,” Gibson said.
Years ago, Gibson encouraged Gingrich to tone down grandiose statements, saying they distract the audience from the message.
Then, as now, Gingrich would occasionally cock his head oddly to the right, Gibson said. When he latched onto a word, he’d use it repeatedly.
“Listen to the number of times that he uses the word ‘frankly,’” Gibson said. “You will lose count.”
Gingrich understands how to exploit TV debates and has avoided any major gaffes, said Mitchell McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who studies presidential debates. When his campaign was lagging, Gingrich baited the front-runners to engage him during debates, which helped him get airtime. He also picks messages that are sure to be replayed on TV. It adds up to free publicity.
“These moments get captured and played over and over,” McKinney said.
One such moment came last week in the South Carolina. CNN debate moderator John King started the broadcast by asking Gingrich to respond to his second ex-wife’s accusation that he asked her for an open marriage.
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” said Gingrich, on his way to gaining a standing ovation from the audience. “And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
He won the primary two days later.