The first big loser tonight was national security. Once again, there was almost no discussion of the critical issues the candidates would face as commander in chief — and there probably would have been no discussion at all, had Gingrich not declared the Palestinians a made-up people. The only candidate to make a substantive foreign-policy point was Rick Perry, when he criticized Obama for allowing Iran to recover our lost drone. Nothing on China, Iran, Iraq, Europe. Pathetic.
The second big loser tonight was Mitt Romney. This was his weakest performance yet. He got into a fight with Rick Perry for no reason. He brought up Gardasil again. Gardasil? His offer of a $10,000 bet backfired badly. Who bets $10,000? Not only did he use the line, he doubled down when his campaign sent out an email attacking Perry for not taking the bet. So it was not just a bad off-the-cuff comment, it was a planned attack. Yikes. That gaffe will haunt him for a long time to come. But more important, why is he fighting with Perry? Newt’s the one who has passed him in the polls. And Romney failed to draw blood from Newt — the person he needs to bring down if he is to win the nomination.
Newt was the winner for the same reasons Romney won the earlier debates: No one knocked him off his perch. He did very well. His line about how Romney would have been a career politician if he had not lost to Ted Kennedy was priceless. He parried the infidelity question with a humble answer about how he’s needed forgiveness. And he turned his gaffe on the Palestinians into a debate win. Romney tried to go after him by saying it was irresponsible and that Romney would be more cautious, declaring “I’m not a bomb thrower.” Newt deftly replied: “I’m a Reaganite,” citing Reagan’s declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” The message GOP voters took away was: Newt is a bold conservative like Reagan, Romney is a cautious moderate. That’s a win for Newt.
The other surprise was Rick Perry, who had his best debate yet. Indeed, Perry may well have been the best candidate on the stage. He’s positioned himself to get a second look if Gingrich self-destructs, and the 75 percent of the GOP electorate that refuses to support Romney goes looking for another champion.