Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has surged into the lead in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, so he was the prime target for fellow Republicans in Saturday's presidential primary debate.
Lucky for Newt, their shots largely missed him.
"Steady," said Politico's Jonathan Martin, who noted that Gingrich had embraced the attacks he knew to anticipate — mostly gathered around the theme that Gingrich tosses off attacks without due consideration of where they'll land.
It was the former House speaker’s first debate as the undisputed frontrunner and not only did he stand up to the fresh scrutiny, he reminded Republican primary voters of his command of the issues, his intellectual dexterity and his self-assured, forceful arguments.
When Mitt Romney scolded Gingrich for his provocative claim that Palestinians are an “invented” people, the former Georgia congressman concisely captured why his brand of bombast is playing so well with a roiling GOP electorate.
“I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and who overruled his entire State Department in order to say, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’’ said Gingrich, calling himself a “Reaganite” and then adding a memorable kicker: “ I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.”
The New York Times noted Gingrich's reliance on humor (an interesting counterpoint to some of his earlier debate performances, where Gingrich argued strongly but also spent a fair portion of his time seeming to lecture the questioners). He also got his shots in. Gingrich on Romney, who has been campaigning against "career politicians" despite serving as governor of Massachusetts and seeking election three times to the U.S. Senate and the White House: “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
The debates are getting chippy, and this one provided another glimpse of the rumored Romney Temper. Here's TIME's take on a Romney line that his rivals are trying to make stick with him.
While sparring with Rick Perry over whether Romney had scrubbed a line about his Massachusetts health-care plan from a later version of one of his books, a visibly irked Romney extended a hand and offered to bet Perry $10,000 that he had not. It was a particularly tone-deaf remark from a candidate laboring to shake the stigmas of his privileged upbringing and vast personal fortune–and one of the race’s memorable missteps. An aide to Jon Huntsman — who has declined to contest Iowa and failed to meet the polling benchmark to qualify for Saturday’s debate — said the campaign had already purchased the website domain 10kbet.com, and the DNC distributed an e-mail pointing out that $10,000 is a sizable chunk of the average American’s yearly wages.
Update: Here's the video of the wager exchange. It looks scripted, The Times writes; wonder if the campaign thinks it was such a winning line now.
Michele Bachmann attempted an appeal to conservatives worried about deviation from orthodoxy by branding the two frontrunners "Newt Romney," Perry launched a fierce dig at Gingrich's multiple forays into, and out of, matrimony. “If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn’t you cheat on your business partner,” the Texas governor said. Ron Paul ripped Gingrich for taking as much as $1.8 million in compensation from Freddie Mac, as Bloomberg News reported. "You probably got some of our taxpayer money," Paul said, according to The Times.
When Gingrich protested that he "offered strategic advice" as a member of the private sector, Romney reacted:
At that point, Mr. Romney chimed in, laughing loudly, “K Street is not the private sector!”
That would not be enough to thwart the Newt's rise. Not on this day. Perhaps the best indication of the strength of Gingrich's performance came not from fellow Republicans, but from Democrats. This video emerged late Saturday night from the DNC, a recap of Gingrich's 30 years as a Republican and conservative firebrand — leaving out all the places the Romney and Perry campaigns would highlight, when Gingrich backed health insurance mandate and appeared with Nancy Pelosi to urge action against climate change. It's the sort of ad the party releases when they're worried about a candidate's unchecked rise.
No one yet has caught the Newt.