As the front-runner in nearly every state and national poll and in the important first-in-the-nation, Newt Gingrich knew that he would be attacked for his political and personal baggage while egged by opponents and moderators to have a moment of irritability, haughtiness, or weirdness at the ABC News/Yahoo! debate on Saturday night. Gingrich was attacked, but he displayed none of the characteristics he has been criticized for and looked and played the part of someone who was ready to become president in terms of temperament and how he responded to fierce and personal criticisms.
Gingrich came out of the debate in a stronger position politically and as a better candidate, countering the criticisms of him with a steadiness that may convince people that he, as he has repeatedly said, has mellowed since his time in Congress. He was measured in his tone and presentation but came out of the debate on the side of those looking for a change agent to go to Washington
On the other hand, in an unscripted moment in which he offered to wager a whopping $10,000 on who was right on a technicality, Mitt Romney reinforced stereotypes of him of being a know-it-all who was out of touch with working America, which have dogged him almost as much as his reputation for flip-flopping and saying whatever he thinks voters want to hear at a particular time. That moment overshadowed many instances in which Romney gave solid answers on the economy and framed the 2012 election as battle to preserve a “merit based society” over an “entitlement society.”
When Perry accused Romney of being for individual mandates in the hardcover edition of his book, No Apology, and then taking those lines out of the paperback version of the book, Romney asked Perry if he were willing to put his money where his mouth was on a technicality about whether Romney advocated every state adopt an individual mandate. In the passage in question, Romney said Massachusetts’ health care model should be used as a national model but did not technically advocate that every state adopt an individual mandate, but Perry seemed to be making that general point and did not calibrate his wording accordingly.
“Rick, I’ll tell you what, 10,000 bucks?” Romney asked. “$10,000 bet?”
“I’m not in the betting business,” Perry responded.
The moment was damaging for Romney because it not only reinforced Romney as being out of touch with normal Americans but also brought back up two issues Romney has skillfully tried to avoid: his flip-flopping and his association with a health care plan after which many believe Obama modelled ObamaCare.
In comparison to Romney, Gingrich had a considerably better night by aggressively attacking from a defensive position.
When Romney attacked Gingrich for being a career politician, Gingrich essentially argued that he was being criticized for winning elections, unlike Romney, who has been tagged as a career candidate by his opponents.
“The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich said. “You would have been a 17 year politician by now if you had won.”
Romney smartly responded back and put an emphasis on his private sector experience, which included helping get companies such as Staples and The Sports Authority off the ground.
“Losing to Teddy Kennedy was the best thing that happened to me because I went back to the private sector,” Romney said.
On Gingrich’s marital issues, the moderators asked each candidate for opinions on the importance of fidelity. Mitt Romney emphasized his strong marriage and family. Rick Perry said that if a person cheated on his wife, he would probably cheat on his business partners and on voters. Ron Paul
Gingrich conceded that his multiple marriages were “a real issue” and “people need to look at whom they are loaning the presidency” and have “every right to ask every singly question.”
“I’ve made mistakes at times and I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness,” Gingrich said. “I’ve had to seek reconciliation, but I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather and I Think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust.”
It was an honest and believable answer that will allow him to put aside this issue that voters and his supporters have factored in their decision making process.
On foreign policy, Gingrich may have won over Evangelical voters and Jewish Republican voters in Florida in addition to national security conservatives by defending his statement that the Palestinians were an “invented people.”
“What I said is factually correct and historically true; every day, rockets are fired at Israel and Hamas says that Israel should not exist and no Jews should remain,” Gingrich said. “ Someone ought to have the courage to say these people are terrorists and that they teach this hate in schools and someone needs to have enough courage to stand up and say stop lying about the middle east. “
Further, when Romney criticized Gingrich for not being careful with his words on the Middle East by saying, “Don’t throw incendiary words when there’s a pot already boiling,” Gingrich invoked Ronald Reagan and said Reagan was not careful when he called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and when he told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Like Reagan, Gingrich said, “I will tell the truth at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes.”
The race in Iowa is still very fluid, and with more than 60 percent of voters saying they have not made up their mind, there is a path to the top for each of the other non-”Newt-Romney” candidates.
Ron Paul was more disciplined this debate as well. He railed against America’s wasteful spending abroad but did not seem defeatist and sound like someone who instinctively wanted to blame America first, as he has in previous debates. If he does not scare Iowans with his foreign policy views or the way he articulates them, Paul has the organization on the ground and the fervent enthusiasm of his supporters to win Iowa, possibly upending and reshuffling the deck in the primary contest.
Michele Bachmann repeatedly mentioned Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan, something she had criticized earlier, in an attempt to try to win over Cain’s supporters while tying Gingrich and Romney together by referring to them both as a single entity, “Newt-Romney.” Bachmann said that “Newt-Romney” were for “ObamaCare,” “cap and trade,” “the illegal immigration problem,” and the “$700 billion bailout.” Bachmann, like the other candidates, may be banking on Romney and Gingrich being what Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt were in the 2004 Democratic primary in Iowa when they essentially attacked each other into oblivion and allowed John Kerry and John Edwards to hurdle over them in Iowa into the top two spots.
Rick Santorum focused on revitalizing manufacturing, such as his proposal to eliminate all corporate income taxes for companies that manufacture, and spoke about how strong families are less likely than broken ones to go into poverty. After receiving a spate of endorsements from important conservative leaders throughout Iowa, Santorum, who has been the hardest working candidate in Iowa, having visited all 99 counties, may be positioned for a boomlet.
Rick Perry had his strongest debate performance of the cycle. At one point, when the candidates were discussing Gingrich’s comment about the Palestinians being an “invented people,” Perry, mimicking how Gingrich rose back up when he was floundering in the polls, attacked the media and defended Gingrich.
“I think this is a minor issue that the media is blowing out of proportion; We have a president that has put a muddled foreign policy in place that is causing problems in the Middle East,” Perry said, before adding that President Obama’s murky problem has nothing to do with “something that Newt Gingrich said.”
The candidates will next debate on December 15. Since that debate from Sioux City, Iowa will air on FOX News and is the last debate before the holiday season begins, it may be the most important and defining debate this cycle.