The very first question in last night’s debate was directed to Newt Gingrich, and it dealt with the gossip that had generated so much chatter throughout the day. CNN’s John King noted that Gingrich’s second ex-wife claims he asked for an “open marriage,” and asked the disgraced former House Speaker, “Would you like to take some time to respond to that?”

The answer led to two standing ovations from the Republicans in the audience. Here’s the video:

YouTube video

Gingrich clearly expected the question, and swung at it as if it had been set on a tee for him.

“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. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.

“Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine…. I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.”

When King mentioned that the story didn’t come from CNN, Gingrich hit him again, saying, “John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it.”

Gingrich then denied the allegations, before concluding, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

Over the course of just three minutes, we learned exactly why Gingrich is a competitive presidential candidate: he understands the Republican id perfectly.

The right really does believe they’re victims. As Steve Kornacki explained very well, “It’s no mystery why the audience of Republicans so instinctively and passionately rallied to Gingrich’s defense. His final line was the key: that the liberal media is out to get Republicans and will stop at nothing to destroy them is an absolute article of faith on the right…. What Gingrich did brilliantly on Thursday night is to articulate this paranoid victimhood in a clear and compelling (for his audience, at least) way. It’s the same basic trick he pulled in this week’s other debate, when he connected with another strain of the persecution complex: that honest, tax-paying Republicans are the victims of a dependency class of poor people and minorities that Democrats intentionally enable.”

Conservative voters hate the media, so Gingrich exploits that hatred. Conservative voters don’t like feeling defensive about race and policy, so Gingrich tells them why they shouldn’t. His debate performances are like dopamine for the right-wing soul.

And because Gingrich understands this so well, the nature of the story shifts — it’s not about Gingrich’s scandalous personal life and his habitual adultery; it’s about those media scoundrels trying to keep Republicans down. GOP voters should feel sorry for Gingrich, the argument goes, because they feel sorry for themselves.

The fact that this article of faith is a fantasy is irrelevant. Indeed, it just takes a moment of independent thought to tear the house of cards down: was Gingrich condemning the “despicable” media when news organizations obsessed over Anthony Weiner’s personal life? How about Eliot Spitzer? Or John Edwards?

More to the point, when Gingrich was helping lead an impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton, and the media’s obsession with a sex scandal was boundless, did Gingrich whine, “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country”? If he did, I missed it.

But for GOP voters in South Carolina, none of this matters. Gingrich “gets” them, and it’s why he’s now favored to win tomorrow’s primary.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.