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.
Was his line about being the “Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses” a little forced? Um, yes. But still, it’s likely to be one of the most quoted lines in the post debate coverage and that’s a good thing for Perry.
* Ron Paul: The Texas Congressman spent WAY too much time defending his isolationist foreign policy views — including his belief that the biggest danger Iran posed to America was if the next president “overreacted”. Bachmann effectively bashed Paul — she said she had “never heard a more dangerous answer” than he gave on Iran — and the Texas Republican, as is his nature, unhelpfully doubled down on his position.
We’ve written before that if Paul talked exclusively about economic/domestic policy he could well be a top tier candidate. But, he simply won’t/can’t avoid airing his foreign policy views, which are badly out of step with the average Republican primary/caucus voter.
Of course, Paul’s supporters love him for it. (These same people will jam the Fix e-mail inbox with complaints about our wrongheaded analysis of Dr. Paul’s performance.) But are there enough hardcore Paul-ites to deliver him a win in Iowa?
* Newt Gingrich: Gingrich’s first hour in this debate was not good. He got caught in a philosophical discussion about government sponsored enterprises — GSE’s — that allowed his opponents to swing away on him taking lots and lots of money from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. He tried to save himself by drawing a distinction between consulting and lobbying that average people just don’t grasp.
Gingrich also seemed peevish at times. Clearly bothered by Romney’s critique of him over the last few days, he acknowledged he was trying not to be “zany” and was editing himself so as to not sound too heated rhetorically. His disregard for Bachmann, which he always seems to keep barely hidden below the surface, was evident tonight and not helpful.
Gingrich was forced to defend his work for Freddie Mac, which has become a frequent avenue of criticism from his rivals, who allege he lobbied for the firm. As the Election 2012 blog reported
At the last Republican debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Gingrich defended his work for mortgage lender Freddie Mac, saying he was “a private citizen engaged in a business like any other business” when he earned $1.6 million for providing the lender strategic advice.
Gingrich had previously said lawmakers involved with Freddie Mac should go to jail, but at the Iowa debate Tuesday night explained that he was not being hypocritical by taking money from the same firm.
Rival Mitt Romney has called on Gingrich to return the money he earned from the quasi-government agency, which previously prompted Gingrich to say that the former Massachusetts governor should return money earned from his leadership of Bain Capital. Gingrich has said that led to downsizing and layoffs.
At the debate, Gingrich insisted that “he did no lobbying of any kind for any organization,” drawing fire from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) who has accused him of influence peddling, regardless of whether Gingrich’s work for Freddie technically qualified as lobbying.
“I am shocked listening to the former speaker of the House because he is defending the continuing practice of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” Bachmann said.
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