Cheap or clever? I’ll let you be the judge. But it’s clear Gingrich isn’t above a snide allusion or well-timed punchline or two. According to CNN’s Political Ticker, the former Speaker delivered an exceptionally “muscular” performance at a town hall today — and his jolly punching bag was Mr. Romney.

Speaking at a WWII museum in Wolfeboro, the historian and Republican presidential candidate made reference to another former governor of Massachusetts who ran for president.

“From a political standpoint I look at this tank lovingly because I remember Michael Dukakis,” said Gingrich of the Democratic presidential nominee who lost to President George H.W. Bush in 1988. “And it’s just a reminder that governors of Massachusetts don’t always make good presidential candidates.”

The well-choreographed event set up the perfect punch line for Gingrich, who is struggling in the polls and trying to draw stark contrast between his record and that of frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Yet for all that he evidently delighted to deliver a snarky insubstantial barb, Gingrich says he’ll keep it friendly at tonight’s debate.

An unusually sunny Newt Gingrich pledged to be a happy warrior at tonight’s debate, contrasting Mitt Romney’s record with his own but not attacking him.

“I’m not going to go after Mitt Romney. I may define the reality of a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich told reporters, saying he would talk about their track records on issues such as taxes and abortion. “I don’t get this ‘go after’ stuff. You don’t need to do that if your case is good.”

The former House speaker and candidate for much of the race declined opportunities to disparage his GOP rivals, saying that doing so only divided Republicans and helped President Obama. But after a barrage of attack ads sank Gingrich in the polls, he has gone on the offensive against Romney. He said he did not fear a voter backlash.

“I don’t think telling the truth in a happy, pleasant way comes across as negative,” he said. “It may come across as the truth.”

It’ll be a surprise to me, though, if his gloves really don’t come off. As was not the case even just a few weeks ago, Gingrich has nothing to lose — not even a lead in South Carolina. Why not try to weaken Romney as much as possible in the hopes of creating any kind of an opening — for himself or for someone else? Those who don’t like Mitt would love it and those who do wouldn’t be voting Gingrich anytime soon, anyway. Gingrich has presented enough ideas and stayed civil long enough to avoid the Michele Bachmann curse: He won’t be branded an idea-less attack dog no matter how nuclear he goes on Mitt tonight. Again, why not?

Either way, Gingrich also claims he’ll aim to be “slower, shorter, clearer” in his answers tonight. Does that mean we’ll hear fewer “fundamentally”s and “profoundly”s? Better rewrite the drinking game rules!