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As was predictable, Newt took a lot of fire and handled it well. I thought he got angry at Michele Bachmann during the “Newt Romney” exchange and testy responding to Romney’s first barrage of attacks, but not enough either time to have a “moment.” If a moderator in any of the debates has deserved to be challenged it was Diane Sawyer tonight, but Newt didn’t do it. I wonder if he thinks he’s already played the irritable-with-moderators card for all its worth and it’s time to be a little above it all now that he’s leading in the polls. The set-up where all the candidates were asked about the importance of marital fidelity, with Newt saved for last, was very uncomfortable, but Newt answered as best he could given the circumstances. He had a powerful rejoinder to Romney’s criticism of his “bomb-throwing” on the invented Palestinian people: The smart set thought Reagan was incendiary, too, when he called for tearing down the Berlin Wall–telling the truth is important. He wiggled off the hook on the individual mandate and Freddie Mac. Overall, people who have liked Gingrich in these debates–and there are a lot of them–saw more of what they have liked.
Romney had the clip sure to be endlessly replayed and discussed when he challenged Perry to a $10,000 bet about his book. Who knew the Mormon guy would have gambling gaffe? The flap is silly, since Romney clearly just wanted to communicate assurance that he was right. But it will be played as Romney being very rich and very out of touch with working people. During the rest of the night, you could almost hear Romney regretting that he finally has an opponent in Gingrich who both knows what he’s talking about and has serious political experience. From the first question, Gingrich and Romney showed their different styles. Gingrich gave a pungent, thematic answer on the economy, Romney gave his bloodless enumerated points. I doubt Romney is going to get much traction criticizing Gingrich for saying kids should work. I hope for his sake that private sector experience polls very well, because otherwise it’s a weak argument. He initially blew his criticism of Gingrich on the Palestinians, making it sound like no American politician should ever say things not sanctioned by the Israeli prime minister. He was generally fine, but Gingrich is drawing from a deeper well of knowledge and knows better what makes conservatives tick.
The others were strong. Bachmann was particularly forceful. Her repeated plugging for former Cain supporters and invocation of her “win-win-win” plan was annoying, but she scored some points by taking on the two top guys. Perry had his best debate yet (and was wise not to have taken the bet, since he would have lost by most accounts). Santorum gave terrific answers on manufacturing, the economic importance of marriage and his political success (until 2006) in the tough terrain of Pennsylvania. Ron Paul brought practically every answer back to his view on foreign policy, the Fed, or the Constitution–even the marital fidelity question.
If Romney is going to have any hope of stopping Newt in Iowa he needs either Newt to deflate or other candidates besides Paul to regain traction. It seems unlikely the first is going to happen as a result of the debates. Newt’s peril will be negative advertising against him, a hostile press with a lot to work with, and his own propensity to do himself harm. As for the other candidates, tonight suggests that they aren’t going to collapse, which would be a disaster for Romney and a boon to Newt.