Newt Gingrich, Mr. Fast Learner

CONCORD, N.H.--On Wednesday, at his first townhall meeting in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses, Newt Gingrich called on an elderly war veteran to ask the first question of his primary campaign swing across the Granite State. Wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, the man stood and spoke of the plight of veterans in New Hampshire, and how they are forced to drive across state lines to obtain crucial care. Those who live in the northern regions of the state must drive for hours, he said.

"Let us have our medical treatment here," the man said. "I think our government owes that to us."

It was the first Gingrich had heard of this problem, but the wheels in his head immediately started turning. On the spot, he began rattling off possible solutions.

"I think we should find ways to create satellite clinics locally so people don't have to travel," he said off the cuff, adding that vouchers could be provided to let veterans receive care at nearby hospitals. "We'd love to work with you in getting that done." He then put the man in touch with one of his aides in the room to provide further details about the frustration of living in a state with limited access to key medical services.

After speaking to the man, Gingrich's aides did some digging and found the problem of care for veterans is in fact a major issue in the state.

The very next day, Gingrich had already incorporated the hospital into his standard stump speech, complete with a plan to fix the problem.

"We are in development of a sophisticated medical center for veterans in the rural country that will be tied by tele-medicine to the best physicians in the world so that you can get care in the north country without having to drive to Boston," Gingrich said at an forum in the mountains of northern New Hampshire Thursday afternoon. "It seems to be profoundly wrong to make our veterans go all the way to Boston to get care, and there are ways we can develop this."

It was a hit. The crowd roared.

On one day, Gingrich didn't even know that the problem existed; on the next, it was part of his presidential campaign platform.

Gingrich, as those who follow him have noticed, is an impressively quick learner. And as a result, he's also a very shrewd politician.

While Gingrich was campaigning in Iowa, he didn't finish a single speech without mentioning his energy plan, which would provide federal tax credits and subsidies to energy industries. This position pits him against pure free-market conservatives in the GOP, who believe the government should allow companies compete on their own merits without any meddling from the state. As Gingrich's campaign bus weaved across the cornfields of Iowa--the state supplying most of the raw material for ethanol products--Gingrich vowed to fight for those energy subsidies. In speech after speech, he declared that if he "had to choose between a billion dollars going to Iran or a billion dollars going to Iowa or North Dakota," he would choose, of course, the United States. He explained further that the subsidies are all part of his "American Energy Plan," and he spelled out its approach in every hamlet, town and city across the Hawkeye State.

But in nearly a half a dozen events in New Hampshire, Gingrich didn't mention energy--ethanol notwithstanding--a single time.

After his first townhall meeting on Thursday morning, I approached Gingrich's spokesman, R.C. Hammond, about the missing plank on his platform.

"Where'd it go?" I asked. "Every day in Iowa he mentioned it and I haven't heard it once."

"Well," Hammond replied, "New Hampshire would also benefit from not having that money go to Saudi Arabia."

"So why doesn't he say that?" I wondered.

So sure enough, at his next speech later that afternoon, the former House Speaker talked all about his energy plan.

"I want more American oil and gas, more American coal, more American nuclear, more American wind and solar, more American biofuels," he told the crowd. "We want to be so secure in our energy supply that no American president ever again bows to a Saudi king."

Gingrich had once again been tipped off to how to make an issue resonate with a New Hampshire town-hall crowd--and as Gingrich will, he adapted his stump speech accordingly.

On the stump here, he also has started talking about something called the Northern Pass power line project--an extremely contentious issue that you've never heard of unless you live in New England. A company wants to build a string of hydroelectric power lines reaching New Hampshire from Canada, and the proposal has caused an uproar, with environmentalists arguing that it will despoil the landscape and community activists opposing it on grounds that the project's eminent domain claims will supersede the property rights of homeowners and small businesses. And now along comes Gingrich, vowing that he would not approve any international plan as president unless those power lines were buried underground.

"I would not sign an authorization that would allow large towers that would destroy the scenic beauty of northern New Hampshire," he said in Lancaster, repeating a similar line in two other cities.

And as expected, the people loved it, rewarding him with applause at each stop.

During a stop in Plymouth, I asked him about his new New Hampshire-based talking points and why he suddenly stopped discussing energy issues after dwelling on them for so long in Iowa. What I got in return was a classic and oft-parodied Newtonian lecture on how the world works.

"You talk in each state about the issues that matter in that state!" he said--thankfully without adding, duh.

Because everybody knows that.

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