Gingrich Takes Fire At Iowa Debate, Romney Misfires

This time, it was Newt Gingrich who walked away unscathed from a Republican Presidential debate.

Last night’s Presidential debate was the first in nearly a month, the first since Herman Cain had dropped out of the race, and the first since Newt Gingrich had emerged as first the next “not Romney” and then as what seems for all the world like the Republican frontunner. Not surprisingly, it was Newt Gingrich that took most of the fire, from Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum (Jon Huntsman was not invited). However, it was Mitt Romney’s exchange with Rick Perry over health care reform that may come away as the line that has the most impact on the race, at least in the short term. As a preliminary matter, the fact that questions were divided relatively equally between Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopolous made the entire evening somewhat more subdued than previous affairs, but any fears that the night would be boring were put aside when the candidates started talking:

DES MOINES — Newt Gingrich offered a robust defense of his views on the Middle East, his lucrative work after leaving Congress and his conservative credentials during a spirited debate here on Saturday night as his Republican presidential rivals urged voters to take a hard look at his candidacy.

With only three weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses open the Republican nominating contest, Mitt Romney raised questions about Mr. Gingrich’s temperament, saying that by making a claim in a recent interview that the Palestinians were an “invented people,” Mr. Gingrich had thrown “incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot.”

Mr. Gingrich took fire for most of the evening, at many points seeming to relish his new role as the leader in the field. He kept his sense of humor and his calm, even as he delivered several attacks of his own, particularly against Mr. Romney.

But when the question of his two divorces and acknowledged extramarital affairs were implicitly raised, Mr. Gingrich listened as his opponents pointedly highlighted their long marriages. He conceded that voters would need to make up their own minds.

“I think people have to render judgment,” Mr. Gingrich said. “In my case, I said up front openly, I’ve made mistakes at times. I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation.”

As Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney tangled with each other over their backgrounds, their world view and their leadership styles, the rest of the Republican field took aim at both of the men, reflecting how the race is narrowing as voters draw closer to weighing in. Representative Michele Bachmann lumped them together as “Newt Romney,” saying both of them had supported a key aspect of President Obama’s health care law, a mandate that all individuals purchase health insurance.

Mr. Romney, who repeatedly mentioned his defense for the middle class, veered from his disciplined stance at one point and seemed to unwittingly draw attention to his wealth when he leaned over to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and offered to place a $10,000 bet over whether Mr. Romney had changed his position on health care between editions of his book.

“I’m not in the betting business,” Mr. Perry said.

Here’s the video:

Up until that moment, and indeed for the balance of the debate, Romney had been his usual self. Cool, calm, projecting the same air of confidence that he has in all the other debates that have, for the most part, led most people to consider him untouched, and unphased, throughout this process. That $10,000 bet, a complete throwaway line, strikes me as being the kind of thing that could come back and haunt him. I understand why Romney said it, Perry was making an unfounded claim about the contents of  Romney’s book, a claim he’s made before by the way, and Romney wanted to demonstrate that he was right and Perry was wrong and that he was so confident of that he’d be willing to put money on the table. The problem for Romney is that its also the kind of line that makes him seem out of touch with the average American. According to the 2010 Census, for example, the median household income in Iowa is roughly $48,000 per year; people who earn money like that probably couldn’t conceive of the notion of being able to throw ten grand away on a bet. Nate Silver noted that the traders on Intrade started betting against Romney after that line, Rod Dreher called it stupid, and several people on Twitter wondered whether Mormons are even supposed to gamble (answer, they’re not.) Ann Althouse raises some legitimate questions about why this should even be a big deal, but I think she misses the point. What Romney’s bet reminded me most of, though, was that moment just before the 2008 Republican National Convention when John McCain said he didn’t know how many houses he and his wife owned, and that his staff would have to answer that question for him.It’s a minor issue, perhaps, but it’s one that makes the candidate seem out of touch with ordinary Americans. Now, granted, few people in a position to run for President can really be described as “ordinary Americans,” but we like to think that the men and women asking to lead the country understand what regular people’s lives are like and when they demonstrate otherwise, it tends to hurt them. (George H.W. Bush experienced this problem several times during the 1992 Election.) My sense is that this will hurt Romney on some level, and if he end up being the nominee, it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to come up again.

More than Romney’s seeming gaffe, though, the real focus of last night’s debate was the new GOP frontrunner:

Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich came under sharp and repeated attack here Saturday night, accused by his rivals of being a career politician who has profited by being a Washington insider, a serial hypocrite who has often changed his views and a leader whose intemperate rhetoric can hurt the United States internationally.

The former House speaker, who came prepared for the assault, parried repeatedly as one after another of his rivals aimed criticism at him. He may have been the target, but he defended himself effectively and without losing his composure.

He pointed to his record in government in helping to create jobs in the 1980s and 1990s. He asserted that he has the experience to lead the country and the courage to speak the truth when others equivocate. He was particularly sharp in rebutting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the biggest threat to his hopes of winning the Republican nomination.

The debate came at a particularly crucial time in the Republican race, with little more than three weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. The attacks by the other five candidates onstage served to underscore the significance of Gingrich’s rise in national and state polls and the limited time his rivals have to slow his march. The attacks echoed some of what voters in Iowa are seeing on their television screens as the ad wars heat up in advance of the caucuses.

Romney took the lead early in going after Gingrich. Pushed to outline his differences with Gingrich, he ticked off a series of issues, from space exploration to child labor. But he said the biggest difference in their qualifications to be president was in the way they’ve led their lives the past quarter-century.

“We don’t need folks who are lifetime Washington people to get this country out of the mess it’s in,” Romney said. “We need people from outside Washington, outside K Street.”

Gingrich counterattacked. “Let’s be candid,” he said. “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994. . . . You’d have been a 17-year career politician if you’d won.”


Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was a consistent critic throughout the debate, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum then joined in the fray, firing at Gingrich over his record in the House and for supporting an individual mandate in health care.

Perry, trying to resuscitate his campaign, in turn attacked Romney and Gingrich over the individual mandate. Romney said he favored the mandate only for Massachusetts, while Gingrich favored it for the nation. Gingrich said he supported the mandate as an alternative to the health-care plan being advanced by former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in 1993 and 1994.

Gingrich came under fire in other ways as well. Romney chided him for some of the wackier ideas he espoused in the 1990s such as moon bases and space mirrors, but Gingrich seemed to brush those off  quite effectively. The most interesting exchange of the night may have come when Romney criticized Gingrich for the comments he had just made on Friday night about the Palestinians being an “invented people,” which I wrote about yesterday. The comments, Romney asserted, was a perfect display of Gingrich’s habit of speaking off the cuff, something that Romney said is not a good quality in a President. Rather than backing away from the comments, though, Gingrich repeated them and asserted that he was doing the same thing that Ronald Reagan did when he stood up and called the Soviet Union an evil empire. Of course, there are a number of differences between the Cold War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that’s not going to matter to the red meat Republicans, who clearly sided with Gingrich last night.

The other issue that came up last night for Gingrich was, perhaps, inevitably, his personal life. It started with a question from ABC’s debate partners at The Des Moines Register about whether a candidates marital fidelity was relevant. The only candidate who took the bait on this one was Rick Perry, which isn’t surprising since he’s been making a pretty obvious play for Iowa evangelicals over the past week or so. Perry asserted that if you could cheat on your wife, you could cheat on anyone, including by implication the voters no doubt. Gingrich actually handled this one rather well, I thought, saying that he  had made mistakes but believed God had forgiven him, suggesting that if that’s happened then why is Rick Perry still holding a grudge? This isn’t an issue that Gingrich is ever going to be able to completely put behind him, and some people  will never support him because of his personal foibles. It’s not the issue that’s going to defeat him, though. Personally, I think there are a ton of non-personal reasons to oppose Gingrich, many of which James Joyner notes in his post this morning. That’s the area his opponents should be concentrating on, not his personal life.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry both took their own shots at Gingrich, as did Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, and its not unfair to say that they all had some of their strongest debate performances of this entire election cycle last night. Michele Bachmann in particular, got under both Romney’s and Gingrich’s skin a bit when she referred to them collectively as “Newt Romney,” making the point that there really isn’t that much of a difference between the two of them when it comes to substance:

Ron Paul, meanwhile, clearly rankled Gingrich a little bit when he pointed out Gingrich’s history with Freddie Mac, and when Gingrich responded that he worked in “the private sector,” Mitt Romney got in a line that brought the loudest laughter of the night when he said “Newt, K Street isn’t the private sector.”

For the most part, though, Gingrich was able to stand above the fray. If his opponents thought, or hoped, that the attacks would bring the “Bad Newt” out finally, they were sorely disappointed. That Newt still exists, and it has made some appearances already during this campaign, but Gingrich has managed to keep that side of him remarkably under control for now, thus denying his opponents and the media the meltdown moment that so many of them think is inevitably coming. Perhaps it will come soon, but that no longer seems likely and with only one debate left before the voting begins, it seems pretty clear that Newt Gingrich is headed into Iowa with a lead in the polls, momentum, and enthusiasm. Those three things together can go a long way.

As for the other candidates, Ron Paul turned in his typical performance and seems destined to be the guy who surprises in Iowa this year. Perry and Bachmann were, as I noted, stronger than they have been in quite some time. Whether this will help them or not seems unclear. At this point, its doubtful that anyone who isn’t in the top three in the Iowa polls has a legitimate shot at pulling off any kind of an upset, but those two, along with Rick Santorum, are struggling now over the question of which one of these candidate(s) might be judged to be expendable. Despite the fact that I sense a number of conservatives trying to push the idea that we’ll see a Santorum surprise in Iowa, it seems to me that he’s the most likely to see his campaign end shortly after the Iowa Caucuses do, mostly because he’s spent more than a year campaigning there and has never been able to make it out of the bottom of the pack. Nothing the former Pennsylvania Senator did last night demonstrated that he’s on the verge of any kind of breakthrough. Bachmann is likely to be in trouble to, mostly because she too has put all her eggs in the Iowa basket and doesn’t seem to have the resources to even compete anywhere else. Of these three, only Rick Perry is likely to survive much beyond Iowa, and probably not for too much longer at that.

There’s one more debate before the Christmas holidays, next Thursday, and we’re likely to see more of what we saw last night. Unless someone can lay a glove on Newt Gingrich, though, it’s unlikely that its really going to change anything.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Eric Florack says:

    We knew he was going to take some fire. That’s what happens when you lead the pack. Someone is always trying to push the King of the mountain, off.

    And yes, Romney misfired badly. That, too, was to be expected.

    That so many of the GOP you rank and file are looking seriously at people other than Romney suggests to even the most casual observer that there is some serious reservations among that rank and file about Romney. In my opinion, those reservations are more than justified, and that fact was clearly revealed last evening.

  2. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos but no Trump…lol….

    And why no Huntsman? I was just starting to give him a second , um, real first look… are his numbers that bad or is it because he is a fan of Captain America’s Plan?

  3. Eric Florack says:

    And why no Huntsman?

    As I gather it, he was off doing his own thing last night.

  4. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    Thanks Bit, I see that he is a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I guess I am done looking…..

  5. Huntsman was not at the debate because he did not meet the debate criteria established by ABC News.

    Ironically, he will be at the Sioux City Iowa Fox Debate.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    The winner of this debate?
    Like all of them…Obama.

  7. PogueMahone says:

    Conventional wisdom these days says Romney is really the only one that has a shot at Obama. I say horsesh!t. Romney’s own party doesn’t even like him – so how does he get everyone else to? Besides, he’s an inconsistent, robotic Mormon who has as much charisma as a can opener. Anyway, he’d lose by five points to Obama as well as an electoral thumping.

    Gingrich, however, would lose in a historic landslide. But I would like to see Gingrich take on Obama as you would see a true representation of today’s Republican ideology lose to a sitting president with low approval and high unemployment.

    Maybe then, Republicans would take a long look at themselves and realize that where they want to take the country is a place where everyone else finds disgusting.


  8. MBunge says:

    As for the debate, it would probably have been the best primary debate I’d seen in a long time if not for Diane Sawyer thinking everyone tuned in to her see blather on. Each candidate got a decent amount of attention and there were some interesting back-and-forth exchanges that helped illustrate both policy and personal differences.

    As for the candidates, I think we saw the real thing that separates Newt and Romney. Newt got into politics because he believes in things. Romney got into politics because, well, it’s really not clear other than he thinks it will look good in his obituary. Romney can tirelessly repeat slogans and bullet points, but Newt is clearly engaged with his ideas and policies in a way that Romney can’t even understand, let alone imitate.


  9. de stijl says:

    The title of the embedded video reads “Michelle Bachmann Simultaneously Takes On the Two Frontrunners”

    Maybe I should have watched the debate.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    It was interesting until Michele’s husband Marcus got in the middle of it all and Santorum freaked out.

  11. Brett #2 says:

    I thought Gingrich gave a great answer on the issue of moon bases and spaceflight.

  12. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    If one believes the scuttlebutt, Marcus is well acquainted with Santorum. Santorum doesn’t freak out Marcus in the slightest.

    Ron Paul did have an “airtight” argument on fiat currency, though.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    Marcus and Santorum? Now that’s a frothy mix!!!