There have been so many debates during the Republican preseason that it was hard to believe the one hosted by Fox News in Sioux City, Iowa, was the last one before the voting begins. Ratings have been strong, and commentary has been endless: You can imagine a network trying to squeeze in just one more—are you free on Christmas Eve, Governor?
It has been a thrilling debate run: Pawlenty crashed; Perry blanked; Romney confronted Perry; Gingrich shined; 9-9-9; Perry blanked. But the Sioux City debate was not an epic contest. It was like the primary race itself: no dominant figure but with something for Republicans to like in each of the candidates. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 66 percent of Iowans said they are still undecided about their final choice. This debate didn't make their job any easier for them.
But Iowans must choose, so in that spirit: The winner of the evening was Mitt Romney. His performance was solid and his defense of his flip-flops was better than his chief rival Newt Gingrich's explanation about his work for Freddie Mac. Most importantly, all the other candidates were effective, and Romney benefits more than Gingrich from a broad strong field that splits the vote.
Romney regained the form he showed in the early debates, commanding and at ease. Romney made fun of mistakes he made in the private sector (He thought Jet Blue wouldn't work), and he talked about how he learned from his errors. Maybe it's a good thing Gingrich has challenged him. He picked up his game.
Gingrich acquitted himself well, too: He was a pugilist, bashing judges, lawyers, Obama's decision on the Keystone pipeline. And he was even self-deprecating, saying at one point that he was "editing himself" in his responses so that he might not "appear zany."
Romney didn't attack Gingrich. His commercials, surrogates, and comments in the paper are softening Gingrich enough. Plus, at this stage in the race—with so little time left—it's a time for candidates to offer voters their closing arguments, the main thrust of their candidacies. Romney focused on his business career, his four experiences as a leader, and the failures of President Obama.
Romney also benefited from his opponent's side skirmishes. Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann attacked Gingrich about the $1.6 million he received from Freddie Mac. "The speaker had his hand out and he was taking $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington," said Bachmann. Gingrich was not at his best in defending himself. He kept having to insist that he never lobbied. His effort to argue a distinction between consulting and lobbying was probably lost on most people. He said he was a private citizen operating in the free enterprise system. "He has a different definition of the private sector than I have," said Paul. Gingrich tried to explain away the problem by making a big picture point about government-sponsored enterprises. "There are a lot of government operations that do good things," he said at one point—in a way that didn't sound very conservative. Gingrich spent almost five minutes taking the pounding. That's an eternity.