The Final GOP debate: Did Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul Just Save Romney’s Campaign?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 16 2011 12:47 AM

Did Bachmann Just Save Romney?

A strong debate performance by the second-tier candidates may have seriously weakened Gingrich.

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Gingrich clearly has a problem with Michele Bachmann. He has called her a dummy a few times, and he treated her like one at the debate, repeatedly saying that she "didn't have her facts straight" when she attacked him for not being sufficiently pro-life and about his record at Fannie. A thrice-married candidate might want to improve or hide the obvious disdain he has for the one woman in the field. In the most recent NBC poll, women have a 38 percent negative view of Gingrich. Only 20 percent of women have a positive view.

Bachmann was relentless saying that conservatives couldn't be weak on the issue of abortion. And she hit hard when Gingrich questioned her facts yet again. "I think it's outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debate that I don't have my facts right. When as a matter of fact, I do. I'm a serious candidate for president of the United States. And my facts are accurate."

This was a very good moment for Bachmann. Unfortunately, Gingrich was validated by the fact checkers. Bachmann, in defending herself, said that Polifact had come out and said that everything she had said was true. Politifact labeled that claim as "pants on fire," its most  negative rating.

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Romney benefited from having his troubling issues come at the end of the debate after people had either tuned out or after he'd established himself as a strong presence. Gingrich had the opposite problem. His best part of the debate came at the end. He defended his criticisms of the judiciary with a judge and lawyer-bashing riff that no doubt will please base voters. Asked about the Republican attorneys general who disagree with him, Gingrich said "as lawyers those two attorneys general are behaving exactly like law schools, which have overly empowered lawyers to think that they can dictate to the rest of us."

Just before the debate, Iowa’s popular Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad had said he didn't know whether Gingrich had the discipline to be president. With that in mind, Gingrich smiled and showed very little of the scowl that is so often his boon companion.  "You know, Neil, I sometimes get accused of using language that's too strong," he said when asked a question, "so I've been standing here editing. I'm very concerned about not appearing to be zany." He then uncorked a crowd-pleaser about president Obama's refusal to approve the any efforts to tie a payroll tax cut extension to reopening the Keystone pipeline.

Everyone seemed to have a good night. Ron Paul hit all the familiar points. Rick Perry declared himself the "Tim Tebow" of Iowa, didn't gaffe, gave forceful praise to the 10th amendment, and received rousing applause when he called for a part-time Congress. Rick Santorum had another  solid performance. If Gingrich's support drops after the deluge of attacks, these candidates are all in a position to benefit. This all helps Mitt Romney. If the competition splits the vote, then no clear alternative to Romney will emerge from Iowa to challenge him in later states. If that happens, he'll win the nomination and we'll be right back where conventional wisdom predicted we'd be.

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