Mitt Romney picked a bad time to have his worst moment during one of the Republican presidential debates. Few will remember or care whether he was right that Rick Perry was misquoting what Romney wrote in his book about his Massachusetts health care bill. But Romney’s betting Perry $10,000 that he didn’t write what Perry said he did will linger in the public’s memory like Perry’s own “oops” moment when he forgot which government agency he wanted to shut down.
Romney’s flippant reminder of his wealth — he bet $10k as easily as most people would wager a $10 bill — at Saturday night’s ABC News/Des Moines Register debate was the most memorable moment at an event in which his goal was to put the heat on frontrunner Newt Gingrich. But instead it was Romney who looked shaky and Gingrich relaxed and confident. Every time the former Speaker found himself in the crosshairs of either his opponents or the moderators, he held his own easily. Though he was pressed hard on his record on health care, the Middle East, immigration and his marital infidelity, Gingrich never faltered. Coming as it did after two weeks in which his poll ratings had soared and Romney’s declined, Gingrich could not have asked for a better evening.
The debate illustrated again that the “new Newt” is a formidable debater. Though he is still capable of getting off message and saying controversial things, rather than fly off the handle, the former Speaker’s steady demeanor and cool ability to hit back every time he is challenged has served him well. And on Saturday night, it was Romney who looked flustered, not Gingrich.
Though the debate began with a discussion of economics, this latest edition of America’s favorite political reality show sometimes got bogged down in odd sidebars. Among the most curious was the lengthy discussion of whether or not Gingrich was right to say that the Palestinians are an “invented people.” Romney tried to position himself so as to seem to agree with Gingrich’s pro-Israel opinion but at the same time claim that his opponent was acting irresponsibly and causing unnecessary trouble for both Israel and the United States.
But true to form, Gingrich doubled down by asserting that he was merely stating a historical fact. Even better, Gingrich compared his willingness to tell the truth to the Arabs to Ronald Reagan’s calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” That was a bull’s eye with Republican voters even if Romney might be right that it was not a prudent thing for a potential president to say. Though Gingrich may not have gained many votes on this issue other than with the hard-line pro-Israel community and evangelicals, by standing his ground, he won the point.
Just as deft was his handling of the one of his biggest problems: his troubled personal life. Though many of his competitors claimed that character was an issue, with Rick Perry going so far as to assert that anyone who would cheat on his wife would cheat on a business partner, Gingrich was able to return serve even on this sore point. He did so by admitting he’d made mistakes and saying he’s asked God to forgive him. The implication was that if God could forgive him, where does anyone else get off having a problem with it?
Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann also had strong performances that may help one or the other toward a respectable finish in Iowa and might help them stay in the race. But the bottom line was that on a night when Romney needed to start taking Gingrich down a peg or two, he failed. Though Gingrich remains vulnerable on a host of issues, the Iowa debate lends credence to the notion his surge is far from over. That’s bad news for a Romney candidacy that right now looks to be in serious trouble.