The Republican field reassembled with a new alignment in Saturday night's debate in Iowa, symbolized by new front-runner Newt Gingrich's literal and figurative placement at center stage. But we're back with our familiar debate night line-up: the five key takeaways from the encounter.
1. It's a new Newt. The former speaker was targeted, at various points, by all of his rivals, yet through the debate he seemed not only unruffled but also actually energized by the challenge. Gingrich never lost his cool, almost never seemed defensive, made his case with confidence (starting with his devastating one-liner that Mitt Romney would have been a career politician if only he had defeated Ted Kennedy in their 1994 Senate race), and, most surprisingly, avoided the arrogance that has frequently undercut him throughout his career. Gingrich seemed steadiest on the question that could have caused him the most trouble-the pointed discussion of whether voters should consider marital infidelity-and managed to avoid seeming either defensive or cavalier when he argued in effect that he has changed since earlier episodes of acknowledged infidelity. "People have to measure who I am now and whether I am a person they can trust," he said in an answer that could apply to almost all of the criticisms he faces from his tumultuous years in the House of Representatives.
In his new front-runner status, Gingrich is unlikely to enjoy clear sailing -- the debate hinted at a rich menu of personal and ideological arguments that his opponents can wield against him. (Rep. Michele Bachmann's portrayal of the former speaker as a "consummate insider" hints at an especially threatening line of argument for a candidate now attracting preponderant tea party support.) But Gingrich's performance Saturday suggests that he may no longer be nearly as prone to the self-destruction that regularly derailed him during his earlier days. If his rivals are going to overtake Gingrich, in other words, they may not be able to count on him to do the heavy lifting for them.
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