The questions highlighted the choice GOP voters will face as they start the process of selecting a presidential nominee in January: whether Romney can be trusted to lead a party that has become more conservative in recent years versus whether Gingrich has the discipline and consistency to carry the Republican banner.
Addressing doubts about his electability, Gingrich said that if the same question had been asked about Ronald Reagan in 1980, he never would have won the nomination. He cited his record in helping to enact welfare reform and balanced budgets as speaker.
“I think it’s fair to say that my commitment to disciplined, systematic work is fairly obvious,” he said. “You know, people just have to decide. . . . I strive for very large changes, and I’m prepared to really try to lead the American people to get this country back on the right track.”
Romney tried to fight back against questions about changes in position that dogged him in his 2008 campaign and remain an issue in the minds of many Republican voters. He acknowledged changing positions on abortion but said that on gay rights he has remained consistent in supporting tolerance but opposing same-sex marriage.
“I’ve learned over time, like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and others, my experience in life over 17, 18, 19 years has told me that sometimes I was wrong,” he said. “Where I was wrong, I tried to correct myself.”
In a debate that featured little in the way of fireworks, who came out of Sioux Falls in the best position? Chris Cillizza broke down the winners and losers
* Michele Bachmann: Bachmann is an underrated — or maybe just overlooked — debater. Since a lull in the early fall, she’s been very solid in these forums, and put together a strong performance tonight.
For second tier candidates — like Bachmann — debates are about fighting for air time and drawing contrasts with the frontrunners. She did both.
Bachmann slammed Texas Rep. Ron Paul for his position on Iran and hammered Gingrich for taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. She also was forceful — and effective — when she lashed out at Gingrich for repeatedly acting dismissively toward her. A nice night for Bachmann.
* Rick Perry: Given the Texas Governor’s disastrously bad past debate performances, it’s always tough to know if you are grading him on a curve. But, for the second straight debate, Perry was energetic and forceful. He stayed on his outsider message — part time Congress etc. — and only very occasionally drifted into the he’s-saying-words-but-they-don’t-mean-anything territory.