A few days ago, Newt Gingrich looked to be rolling to the nomination, and Mitt Romney seemed headed for an inevitable loss. But the last debate before the Iowa caucus ended with the former Speaker headed back to the pack. Gingrich had some strong moments in Sioux City, but the beating he took on his consulting work for Freddie Mac from Michele Bachmann brought into focus the questions about his record that many Republicans have been ignoring in recent weeks.
Mitt Romney recovered from his poor performance last Saturday and was back to the steady, confident debater he was earlier in the campaign. But the story was not so much his strong showing as it was the ability of Bachmann and even Rick Perry to score some points. If, as today’s Rasmussen poll indicates, voters are starting to have second thoughts about Gingrich’s ability to beat President Obama, then the ability of the second-tier conservatives to eat into the former Speaker’s support may be crucial in deciding the outcome of the caucus next month. Though Ron Paul, the candidate who seemed in the best position to threaten Gingrich’s lead, had a terrible night as he was flayed by Bachmann for his irresponsible support for Iran, the net result of the field evening out in this manner is to Romney’s advantage.
There were no obvious gaffes. But there were some memorable moments as Bachmann stood up to both Gingrich and Paul, subjecting both to withering attacks. Gingrich recovered to some extent with strong attacks on President Obama on the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation and on liberal judges. But if his goal was to maintain his momentum, he failed. Gingrich was subjected to tough questioning that diminished his ability to stay on top.
The debate was more important to Gingrich than the others because his weak organization in the state made it imperative he head into the final weeks with a big lead. Though it can be argued by the end of the night he had recovered some of the ground he lost when he was being backed into a corner by Bachmann, it still meant that he was, at best, no better off than when he began.
Paul’s extremist foreign policy, which was thoroughly exposed by both the moderators and his conservative opponents, should sink any hopes that his followers might have about the libertarian extremist squeaking out a narrow plurality. That has to help Gingrich, but strong showings by Bachmann and Perry (who will be best remembered for his line about being the political version of Tim Tebow), will eat into Gingrich’s lead and diminish the notion that he is the default “anti-Romney” for many conservatives.
Romney’s path to victory in Iowa — which would set him on an easy path to the nomination — is predicated on a divided conservative field. If Gingrich is headed back to the pack and with some of the second-tier candidates gaining ground rather than fading into obscurity, then Romney may be back on track.