DES MOINES, Iowa--The last time Newt Gingrich and his chief rival for the Republican nomination went toe-to-toe in a nationally televised debate, sparring over their records on health insurance reform, Mitt Romney got the better of him.
Not this time.
At Saturday’s ABC News-sponsored debate, Romney tried to no avail to bait his surging opponent, failing to disrupt Gingrich’s momentum only 24 days from the nation’s first nominating contest. The former House speaker dominated the broadcast and kept his ego in check--winking at least twice at someone in the audience as if to signal, “No worries!’’
His even-keeled performance was yet another sign that Gingrich is unlike the other candidates who have approached or bested Romney in the polls only to come crashing down. Gingrich’s demeanor was a refreshing change from his frequent pose as a puffed-up braggart who relishes berating debate moderators and lecturing the audience (although he did manage to slip in at least one mention of himself as a “historian.’’)
In his first debate as the undisputed front-runner, drawing attacks from every direction, Gingrich would not back down, not from his peculiar vision of mining minerals on the moon, not from his elitist proposal to put poor kids to work as school janitors, not even from his awkward description of the Palestinians as “invented" people.’’
When Rep. Ron Paul ripped him for receiving $1.6 million from government-sponsored mortgage backer Freddie Mac, Gingrich drew laughs by gesturing toward Romney and borrowing one of the former corporate executive’s trademark lines: “I was in the private sector.’’
Debates test a candidate’s mettle under extraordinary pressure, and Gingrich didn’t flinch when asked whether voters should consider a candidate’s marital infidelity. As his rivals each boasted about their long marriages, the tension was building around Gingrich’s response. The thrice-married Gingrich, who has admitted cheating, said voters had the “right to ask every single question.’’ He added: “I've made mistakes at times. I've had to go to God for forgiveness. I've had to seek reconciliation. But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now.’’
It was a humble, pitch-perfect response that may have put to rest a matter that has dogged Gingrich’s campaign from the beginning.
Earlier on Saturday, at the opening of a campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Gingrich promised his campaign would be “relentlessly positive.’’ But 20 minutes into the debate, after Romney criticized him on several fronts, including his long history in Washington, Gingrich fired back with the zinger of the night: “The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.’’
To his credit, Romney absorbed the blow, joking that if he had realized his childhood dream to play in the National Football League “I would have been a football star too.’’
Romney has only one more chance, at a Dec. 15 debate in Sioux City, Iowa, to kneecap Gingrich on national television before the Jan. 3 caucus.
Saturday’s debate was the first without Herman Cain, who quit the race one week ago, and Jon Huntsman, whose low polling numbers made him ineligible to participate. The image of the six people left standing on stage was a visual reminder of how the race is winding down.
Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry both turned in their strongest debate performances in weeks. Bachmann made a persuasive case that “Newt Romney’’ was ill-suited to take on President Obama’s health care plan because both Romney and Gingrich have favored an individual mandate to buy insurance.
But the minor breakthroughs by Bachmann and Perry have likely come too late to bust up an increasingly rambunctious two-man contest.