This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
The role of stalwart chief executive already had two suitors in Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Casting the rest of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, Ron Paul nailed the libertarian puritan and John Huntsman cornered reasonable moderate. So what job remained for onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich, struggling to make a mark on a stage stacked with eight candidates?
How about Chief Media Basher and All-Around GOP Team Guy?
It may have amounted to a bit part, but one offering scene-stealing opportunity, especially given that the event at the Ronald Reagan Library & Museum in Simi Valley was being broadcast by MSNBC. The liberal-tilting cable network gave the also-ran Gingrich the perfect foil, the chance to play Republican Party uniter and -- who knows? -- maybe begin positioning himself for some future Cabinet appointment.
Gingrich's turn will be most remembered (and already celebrated by multiple conservative commentators) for attacking Politico's John Harris, when the debate moderator tried to get him to take sides between fellow GOP candidates on the issue of healthcare.
The Georgian got in a few other not-so-subtle digs at the media and advanced a much broader thesis: Attempts to tease out differences between the Republican hopefuls were thinly veiled maneuvers "to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated."
That proposition is enjoyable raw meat for the GOP base. And it would make a lot of sense, except for the fact that the entire cumbersome, protracted and heavily covered primary-election process is designed to expose and explain differences among a political party's various candidates. Is there any other way to help voters decide which product to finally pull off the shelf? (Well, probably, but this is the system we are stuck with, for now.)
Yet Gingrich and a sizable pack of post-debate commentators expressed dismay, even outrage, that NBC anchor Brian Williams and Harris would try to get the candidates to talk about their differences. Obviously, given MSNBC's well-deserved reputation for liberal political commentary, this had to be a partisan plot.
This raises many questions: Did all these people sleep through the last several presidential campaigns? Don't any of them recall how the media, to take just the most recent instance, spent months reporting and glorying in every possible distinction between dueling Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton? Have political debates, three years later, been redesignated as "friending" circles?
You would think so to listen to the undeniably bright (and, in this case, cunning) Gingrich. From his first answer, he made clear he would be school-marming and parrying the debate moderators, while playing shamelessly to the partisan gallery.
Asked about writing the forward for Perry's book "Fed Up" -- which outlines the Texas governor's serious doubts about all sorts of federal programs, including Medicare -- Gingrich would have none of it.
"Look, he's said himself that was an interesting book of ideas by somebody who's not proposing a manifesto for president," Gingrich said. "And I think to go back and try to take that apart is silly."
Even though the book was published just last year, Gingrich suggested to Williams that questions about "Fed Up" made no sense. So Check One, on Gingrich's new debating rules: Would-be presidents should not have to talk about their previous scribblings, even ones they wrote as visions of the Oval Office danced in their heads.
Near the end of the debate, the former Speaker would have to straighten Williams out again. In response to a question about Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke (whom he would fire "tomorrow"), Gingrich pivoted to an earlier question. A much earlier question; actually from a previous GOP debate.
"We were asked the wrong question at the last debate," Gingrich said. "The question isn't, would we favor a tax increase? The question is, how would we generate revenue?"
Gingrich said the conversation should be about cutting government and opening vast tracts of Alaska to gas and oil extraction. Never mind that many economists and public-opinion surveys would seem to put some tax increases (for higher-income earners) on the table for most Americans. We nonetheless have Gingrich's Check Two: No more questions about higher taxes. For anyone.
He saved his third rule, and sharpest barb, for Harris, the longtime political writer and co-founder of Politico.com.
Harris suggested that the two GOP front-runners -- Romney and Perry -- had "a genuine philosophical disagreement" over healthcare. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney passed a reform that required residents to buy health insurance. Perry and other Republicans have designated such a "mandate," a key to President Obama's national healthcare law, as just the sort of big-government solution that is anathema to economic recovery and American values.
Harris asked Gingrich to weigh in on the side of Romney's Massachusetts plan or the small-government approach in Texas, where one-quarter of residents are uninsured.
"Well, I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other," Gingrich snapped. Harris interjected that there is a real choice to be made -- requiring citizens to buy health insurance, or not.
Gingrich remained unmoved. He huffed that he would "repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated." Check Three: the media should never expect one Republican to speak ill of another.
It seems abundantly clear, as Gingrich pointed out, that Republicans are unified in opposing Obama's healthcare changes. But not so clear, or true, is Gingrich's contention that only slippery, scheming journalists want to talk about Romney's healthcare record. The record of the last few months will show any number of occasions in which Republicans on the stump, with little aid from villainous reporters, used "Romneycare" to bludgeon the former Massachusetts governor.
Could the news media in clear conscience cover the current campaign and not raise one of the front-running candidate's major policy initiatives, one that was also a substantial public policy watershed? Wouldn't a moderator who failed to question what other candidates felt about that initiative be guilty of sloppiness, if not malpractice?
That Gingrich has begun flailing to draw himself attention is not just a conclusion of crazy liberals. Speaking on Fox Business Network on Thursday morning, anchor Chris Wallace said of Gingrich: "He is doing this stunt, which he did with me and he did with John Harris yesterday, which is attack the messenger. If he thinks that works, fine. I find it kind of sad."
[For the Record: 2:08 p.m. Sept. 9: A previous version of this post said anchor Chris Wallace spoke on Fox Business News.]
-- James Rainey
Photo: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, right, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich greet after a debate among GOP presidential candidates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Musuem in Simi Valley on Wednesday. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images