The Corner

Newt the Tactician

The big surprise to me last night was Newt’s constant flanking of Romney by aligning with other candidates (Perry, Santorum) on some of the issues, making him seem — for the first time — like the reasonable, consensus candidate. From my column in today’s New York Post:

In the crispest debate since the series began back in May, everyone was on his or her game. There were no gaffes, no flubs, no disastrous memory losses. The candidates — almost any one of whom would have a real chance of unseating President Obama in next year’s presidential election — were all smooth and polished, sticking to their well-staked-out issues.

Indeed, they’ve become like characters in a long-running sitcom, with each one slickly playing his or her assigned role.

There’s Ron Paul, the wacky libertarian who believes in a kind of international Golden Rule: do unto other nations as you would have them do unto you. There’s Michele Bachmann, consistently assailing Obama. And Rick Santorum, the bright kid who always complains he’s not getting enough attention from the teacher.

But there was one big difference last night: This was the first debate in which Mitt Romney, the eternal but generally unloved front-runner, was just another figure on stage, looking nervously over his shoulder not just at the man standing next to him, Rick Perry (who had his best debate performance to date) but at the man who’s supplanting him atop the polls, Newt Gingrich.

Now that Newt’s co-top of the heap, the knives are coming out, of course, and you can expect to see lots more stories like this one from Politico. But I think he went a long way last night toward seeming, well, presidential.

In short, what we saw last night was a canny veteran outpointing his slicker, younger rival — something no one would’ve believed possible a few months ago when Gingrich’s campaign seemed to collapse, leaving him the butt of jokes about how much he was spending on his third wife’s jewelry.

Will the Gingrich boomlet last? His famous “baggage” would make him an easy target for Obama, but his formidable intellect would counter that in the head-to-head presidential debates. Gingrich now needs to stay on this focused path and not indulge his unfortunate penchant for faddish notions and shooting from the lip.

But last night also helped Mitt. Unlike Bachmann and Cain (who showed once again that he knows absolutely nothing about the world beyond the US), Gingrich can take the nomination away from him. Let’s see if he raises his game now as well.

If Newt can only control his impulses toward intellectual faddishness and a never-to-be-requited desire to be loved by the Beltway Media, he might have a chance.

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