Tonight’s Republican debate in Iowa was the first one since Newt Gingrich moved into first place in the polls. The focus was mainly on him, the former speaker of the House. It was also the smallest debate of the GOP primary, featuring only six candidates—Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Gingrich.
Romney, who is now in second in many national polls behind Gingrich, attacked the former Georgia congressman for being a career politician. Gingrich responded with a biting line, telling Romney that he, too, would be a career politician if he had not lost his Massachusetts Senate race to Ted Kennedy in 1994. Romney would now be in his 17th year as a politician, Gingrich guessed, if Romney’s attempt had been successful then.
Romney was a bit befuddled, perhaps not expecting such an attack. But after Gingrich finished talking about his plan for the capital gains tax, Romney had a pretty good response. He conceded Gingrich’s point, but said he also wanted to be a football player, and those plans were never realized either as he’s not playing in the National Football League. Romney went on to make the case that the experience he has from being in the private sector—which is greater than it would be if he had won that Senate seat—is greater than what he would have learned as a politician.
Perry accused Romney of supporting a federal individual mandate. Romney seemed annoyed, assured him he always believed the Massachusetts plan was good for his state only, and offered Perry a $10,000 bet if the Texas governor could prove otherwise. Perry responded by saying he is not a betting man. Romney made his point, but the offer of a high dollar bet—something most Americans would not be able to do in the heat of an argument—surely reminded many viewers of the immense wealth of the former chief of Bain Capital.
Bachmann attacked the front-runners on stage. The others candidates, Bachmann said focusing on Romney and Gingrich, had at different points aligned themselves with liberal positions on health care. The Minnesota congressman tried to coin the phrase “Newt Romney” when talking about Gingrich’s and Romney’s position on health care. It’s likely the phrase won’t be remembered beyond tonight.
Santorum, who is betting his campaign on whether he’s successful in Iowa, did a good job name checking various cities across the state. But more importantly, the former Pennsylvania senator sounded like a like a grown-up. He didn’t complain to the moderators that he wasn’t asked enough questions, as he’s done in a few of the other debates. His answers were clear and thoughtful. Additionally, Santorum explained how Gingrich had been an inspiration to his own political career—a line that will likely be featured in some future Gingrich campaign ad.
Paul made the point that Newt’s relationship with Fannie and Freddie—the hundreds of thousands of dollars he received from the federally backed institutions—was troublesome. Gingrich said he offered strategic advice—and then laughed. It might have been his weakest moment in the debate.
But overall, Gingrich seemed very comfortable in first place tonight. He was under attack the whole night, but did not seem to get flustered. He was passionate in showing his support for Israel, and mostly able to fend of his fellow Republicans. This might also have been the first debate in which Gingrich did not attack the moderators.
Perry, in general, seemed to be sitting on the backbench, though he did give two memorable answers. The first was in regard to whether one’s background and moral character matters. Perry said, yes, one’s character matters, as he argued one who cheats on his wife is likely to cheat on his business partner. (The swipe was directed toward Gingrich, who conceded he “made mistakes” in his life before.) Perry also gave the most far reaching critique of President Obama’s foreign policy—reminding his fellow debaters of the real political objective of the race—to hold the president to a single term.
Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman did not participate in Saturday night’s debate. The Iowa Caucus will be held on January 3.