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.
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.
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.