The general sense created by Thursday’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa is that Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are at the center of the Republican race and that all the others are peripheral players.
If Gingrich was the front-runner going in, he was still the front-runner going out. He had a strong opening on his record and his commitment to conservatism. He referred, sometimes in jest, to the attacks against him, winning laughter at one point for saying he did not want to appear “zany,” a word Romney had used about him. His proposals on limiting the power of judges raise a slew of problems, as Paul suggested, but I suspect the conservatives he needs liked what he said.
He was, however, put rather clearly on the defensive in an exchange with Michele Bachmann who attacked his extremely well-paid work for Freddie Mac. His defense of Government Sponsored Enterprises is unlikely to have gone down well with Republicans who will wonder if that’s not socialism. The Freddie Mac confrontation was the one moment in the debate during which he did not seem at ease. Oh, yes, and the many past targets of Gingrich’s searing attacks were probably amused when he said, “Sometimes people ought to have the facts before they make wild allegations.”
Mitt Romney scored no points on Gingrich, but he seemed at ease, even happy, in his work. He issued the sort of over-the-top attacks on President Obama (he mocked the president as saying “pretty please” to Iran in asking the country to return our downed Drone.) that the Republican base loves. My hunch is that Romney steadied his ship tonight.
And Ron Paul was at the center of the action as the house dissenter all night long. I’m sure that many who don’t share Paul’s foreign policy views or his libertarianism were nonetheless relieved to hear someone challenge the march to war that seemed implicit in the comments of the rest of the G.O.P. candidates. The Republicans are out of touch with public opinion, which welcomes the end to the Iraq war and gives Obama his highest ratings for foreign policy. Except for Paul, the G.O.P. is talking like it’s still 2003.
As for the best of the field, Rick Perry seems finally to have figured out this debate thing, but it’s a little late. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann got their licks in, but except for Bachmann’s moment challenging Gingrich, both seemed to be pushing in from the edges. Jon Huntsman made some good points and offered so much less bluster than his competitors, particularly Gingrich and Romney. He did not score a lot of points with hard core conservatives, but he made his presence felt enough that he probably reached the New Hampshire Republicans who are drifting his way and have pushed him into double digits.
The bottom line is that Republican Establishment hopes that Gingrich will implode on his own haven’t panned out so far. Count on the assaults against him to escalate.