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Gingrich, in N.H., tries to refocus his campaign

DERRY, N.H. - Newt Gingrich waved his hand at the TV camera lenses and microphones like a man fighting off gnats.

DERRY, N.H. - Newt Gingrich waved his hand at the TV camera lenses and microphones like a man fighting off gnats.

"Cover the speech, cover the speech," he said, smiling.

No, Gingrich would not talk (again) about his criticism of House Republicans' approach to Medicare (and his recanting of same), nor (again) about his $500,000 Tiffany & Co. revolving credit account - nor any of the other sticky questions that have dominated coverage of his campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination since it launched two weeks ago.

Gingrich began a two-day trip Wednesday to New Hampshire determined to seize back his campaign from the back-and-forth of the Washington Sunday talk shows and pundits' narrative that he'd already blown it.

In the lobby of the Derry Medical Center, Gingrich called President Obama's health-care law an unconstitutional expansion of government power that would lead to "rationing" of medical services by "faceless bureaucrats."

"This is the heart of the debate: We must either limit government or government will limit us," Gingrich said.

The former House speaker said he would replace the new law with a state-based system that uses free-market principles, such as an expansion of tax credits and deductions to make it easier for individuals to buy their own insurance, and greater use of medical savings accounts. He read his speech from behind a lectern, and took a few questions from what he called "civilians."

There was a chaotic scrum as Gingrich sought to meet and greet about 40 voters who had listened to him and as news reporters tried to fire questions. A radio reporter asked him about the Tiffany account, which is threatening to become one of those notorious symbols of a candidate out of touch, like John Edwards' $400 haircut and John Kerry's Nantucket windsurfing during the 2004 campaign.

"You are far more fascinated by that than most Americans," Gingrich said. "Normal Americans actually ask about jobs, they ask about energy, they ask about things that actually affect their lives."

The most recent poll of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire, released Monday, showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leading among likely Republican voters, with 33 percent support. Gingrich was polling 7 percent, slightly ahead of Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor. The poll of 347 respondents was conducted by the University of New Hampshire for WMUR-TV in Manchester.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Republican field has solidified, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels declining to run, and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman gearing up a campaign.

Huntsman spent five days in New Hampshire last week, drawing friendly and curious crowds, and Pawlenty, who has been concentrating on Iowa, is due to visit Thursday. Independent-minded New Hampshire is high on candidates' priority list at this early stage of the race because it holds the nation's first presidential primary.

Later Wednesday, a fired-up Gingrich spoke extemporaneously to about 200 conservative activists packed into the Manchester home of Ovide Lamontagne, an influential tea-party favorite who ran an insurgent campaign in the GOP Senate primary last year and came close to beating the establishment candidate, now-Sen. Kelly Ayotte. His endorsement is highly sought, and potential presidential candidates have been making the trek to his house.

"Four more years of Obama would be a disaster," Gingrich told the activists. "We need a candidate who can draw the clearest possible contrast. . . . You have to ask yourself: Who has a track record in Washington of achieving very large things?"

Gingrich reminded his listeners that when he was speaker in the 1990s, the budget was balanced for the first time in decades, and welfare was changed so that benefits were contingent on work and education.

"I don't want to be 'left light,' " Gingrich said. "I want to remake Washington, put it on the right path."

He was derisive about the Obama administration's foreign policy, particularly the president's suggestion that Israel's pre-1967 boundaries be a starting point for negotiation with the Palestinians. It is ironic that a president who "can't even control his own country's borders is lecturing another country about theirs," Gingrich said.

Responding to questions from the activists, Gingrich talked about global warming (there should at least be a debate about its validity, he said) to immigration to Obama's alleged socialist tendencies. The Tiffany account did not come up, nor did the House GOP proposal to convert Medicare to a voucher system - until he allowed reporters to pose a couple of questions at the end.

"I hope I have helped you look beyond the news-media coverage of the last week," Gingrich said in closing, asking his listeners to visit his website and join his campaign.