The Iowa Debate: Newt Wins the Dress Rehearsal

\Newt Gingrich speaks while Mitt Romney and Ron Paul look on during the Saturday’s debate in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

When he talks to Republicans, especially to Republican voters who may not be inclined to back him, Newt Gingrich wins them over with a promise. He will outsmart Barack Obama. He will challenge him to “seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates,” as he said last week at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s confab. The president can even “use a teleprompter,” jokes Gingrich. It’s one of the tightest punchlines in conservative politics.

Tonight’s debate in Iowa was the first since Republicans agreed that Gingrich was their presidential front-runner. They’ve started to imagine him facing off against Barack Obama, the president they consider a pure media creation who can’t put two words together unless they’re in blue type on a screen in front of him. They’ve chased fantasies before, like when they heard about a governor from Texas who was going to be their dream candidate, and it turned out that he had trouble with that pesky varmint called “English.”

Gingrich needed to impress them. He did. Twenty minutes into the debate, Mitt Romney was prompted to criticize the former speaker, and he let loose with four attacks on his record: Crazy idea about lunar colonies, unfair tax plan, musings about children working at age 15, life as a career politician. Gingrich announced that he was going to punch back on all four points, and swiveled to face Romney.

“You’d have been a 17-year career politician,” he said, “if you hadn’t been beaten by Teddy Kennedy.”

It was the first time he’d attacked another candidate on the debate stage, after months of attacking debate moderators for even trying to make the candidates fight. Didn’t matter. It was easy, but it was a direct hit to Romney’s solar plexus on a bit of trivia that every reporter covering the race has been joking about.

“Losing to Teddy Kennedy is probably the best thing I could have done,” said Romney, after the audience had lapped up the attack line. “It put me back into the private sector.”

That was a fine response, but over the rest of the night Romney revealed that he really isn’t as good at Gingrich at dishing this out. No one is—not in this field. No one thinks as quickly on his feet, and no one tosses up so many decoys to escape set traps.

This wasn’t obvious when Romney was riding high. In previous debates, no one had much interest in bringing him down. In the Orlando debate, when Rick Perry tried, Romney laughed out loud at his mumbled syntax. “Nice try,” he’d said, after a Perry jab landed a few feet away from its mark. In the Las Vegas debate, when Perry tried to rattle Romney on a lawn care company that once employed illegal immigrants while working on his property, Romney was mildly rattled, assuring viewers that he would never allow such a thing because he was “running for office, for Pete’s sake.”

In Iowa tonight, Romney was more easily irritated than he’s ever been. Perry attacked him on his support of a mandate, and Romney reached out his hand to make a “$10,000” bet that Perry couldn’t prove it. Perry, who stopped being an Iowa front-runner more than a month ago, kept baiting Romney into attacks. To drive in his mandate argument, Romney reminded Perry that he’d mandated Gardasil shots in Texas—a dead issue—to make the point that they were both flawed. “It’s not like we have this big difference on mandates,” he said. What does it serve Romney to keep reminding Republicans about that? Nothing. It helps Gingrich.

Gingrich never allowed himself to get stuck like that. His rivals, cursed in their own ways with weaker debating skills, kept letting him out. Ron Paul, never a comfortable attacker, chided Gingrich for consulting for Freddie Mac in the run-up to the financial crisis. “As you say, normally, in your own speeches, the housing bubble came from the Fed inflating the housing supply,” said Gingrich. A one-two punch: He called Paul a phony and called himself innocent. “I was in the private sector,” he explained, “and I was doing things in the private sector.” He charged for his insights. “You’re allowed to charge money for them. That’s called free enterprise.”

This was pure distraction. “Free enterprise,” as conservatives like to think about it, has nothing to do with the health of the government. Gingrich was referring to a period when he used his clout and connections to charge a government agency as a consultant. But he slipped so quickly in and out of the explanation that no one nabbed him for it.

He didn’t even have to evade many traps. Santorum, who’s trying for an upset in Iowa by outcampaigning everyone else, was stuck on that, uninterested in attacking Gingrich. He name-dropped Iowa towns, thanked their people for their insights, and allowed everyone else to ignore him until they were prompted to pay a compliment. Bachmann split the difference between attacks and panders, finding her way to clunkers of all kinds. She beseeched Herman Cain’s fans to back her by praising his “999” tax plan and proving what good people could do if they kept ideas simple; a month ago, she was calling 999 a tax hike and asking voters to turn the numbers upside down to see their Satanic meaning. She linked the front-running candidates, conjuring a creature called “Newt Romney” that had always got it wrong on mandates.

“When we pick our nominee,” she said, “we’ve got to have someone who is a stark, distinct difference.”

As she so often does, Bachmann was describing an ideal candidate and voters were thinking of somebody else. They like the idea of Gingrich facing Obama, and they think he provides a stark contrast. He says so. His last full-on grapple with Romney came when the former governor attacked him, in a sort of more-in-sorrow-than-anger way, for saying that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” That, said Romney, was complicating things for Israelis.

“The Israelis are getting rocketed every day,” snorted Gingrich. “We’re not making life more difficult. The Obama administration is making life more difficult.” Plus, he sounded like he was right on the facts. “Palestinian did not become a common term until after 1977.” That’s the sort of knowledge-bomb that Republicans dream of dropping on Obama—they feel like this is right, but here’s a candidate who can say so.*

And then Gingrich closed the loop.

“I’m a Reaganite,” he said. “I’m proud to be a Reaganite. Even at the point of causing some confusion with the timid.”

Who was “the timid?” Whoever viewers thought it should be. Obama. Romney. The media. All of them, as far as they’re concerned, would lose in a showdown with Newt Gingrich. And this is how he won the debate.

*UPDATE: Matt Barganier rightly chides me for not pointing out that Newt’s version of Palestinian history, which he described so confidently, was.. wrong. I was being a bit too arch, and originally wrote “Plus, he was right on the facts” to describe how Gingrich sounded to conservatives. I’ve tweaked the language to point out that he sounded right, but wasn’t.