Sunday, December 11, 2011

Five Takeaways from Saturday's Debate

From: National Journal

The Republican field reassembled with a new alignment in Saturday night's debate in Iowa, symbolized by freshly minted frontrunner 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.

2. Mitt Romney needed a strong performance to reverse the perception that he is losing altitude, and while he delivered some effective answers, he created more problems than he solved Saturday. The single indelible image from the debate will be Romney reaching across to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 in a dispute over what Romney wrote in his book. Romney actually responded effectively to a question that asked about his personal exposure to hard times, but the picture of him taunting Perry is sure to overwhelm all of his words. It's hard to imagine what else Romney could have done --except maybe peel out a wad of bills on his podium -- that would have more powerfully underscored the image of him as a product of privilege disconnected from the challenges of average families. He has arguments against Gingrich -- and he effectively flicked at the best of them in an exchange over Israel, by arguing that America needs a president who displays "sobriety, care and stability." Romney also has the organization and money to press his case. But his "bet" could prove a very costly wager.

3. With Jon Huntsman off the stage, the physical layout of the debate captured the actual dynamic of the race. At the center stood two candidates--Gingrich and Romney--who have regularly conflicted with conservatives throughout their careers and who each remains a figure of suspicion for many on the right. Flanking them were four candidates to their ideological right, each of them hoping to push their way to center stage. Of the four, Bachmann did herself the most good on Saturday night. It's unclear whether voters will accept her attempt to yoke together the two front-runners as "Newt Romney" on immigration, health care and climate change, but she made a strong case that conservative true believers should not settle for either. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was also more confident and forceful than in most of the earlier debates. If either enjoys a revival, it will almost certainly hurt Gingrich more than Romney, because a big part of the surge for the former House Speaker is a stampede toward him among the tea party and evangelical Christian voters that both Perry and Bachmann had in their sights at the debate.

4. Ron Paul undoubtedly has a ceiling in the race, but he seems to be raising his floor through his performances in these debates. Over the course of these encounters, he's been given a forum to provide the clearest explanation of the libertarian creed probably ever delivered to a mainstream political audience. While its unconditional certainties undoubtedly strike many listeners as simplistic or illogical, they inspire others. In either case, Paul may have provided his most concise a summary of libertarian thinking yet at this debate when he declared: "that's all government is: is force."

5. This debate was one of the final opportunities for the field to change the race's dynamic before it freezes for the Christmas holiday. Nothing that happened Saturday would give any of the other contenders much confidence that they can overcome the surge that has propelled Gingrich to the lead in Iowa. Rick Santorum, Perry and Bachmann have no choice but to continue fighting full-out in Iowa, because their campaigns will deflate immediately if they don't show well there. But after Saturday, it wouldn't be surprising if Romney's team decided to shift time and money away from Iowa back toward reinforcing a firewall in New Hampshire that he now seems more likely than ever to need.

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