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Indulgence, invention, infidelity — the Newt Romney debate

Newt Romney!(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) (Kevork Djansezian/GETTY IMAGES)

“Newt Romney” — an effort to suggest that current pack-leaders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were “clones” — was Michele Bachmann’s coinage. She was on fire this evening, apparently trying to position herself as the successor to Herman Cain — not a sentence I thought I would ever type — repeatedly referencing his 9-9-9 plan and suggesting a new “Win-Win-Win” Bachmann plan.

This was the first debate themed around Gingrich, and it showed in the questions.

Gingrich demands the use of the letter “I.” It’s not merely the way it recurs in his last name, or his tendency to quote himself. The letter also linked the three key questions in his first debate as frontrunner. If they’d been any less subtle, someone would have coughed Newt’s name loudly as each question was asked. They asked about infidelity: “Should voters consider marital fidelity when making their choices for president?” (Cough, Newt, cough.) They asked about indulgence: “When was the last time you had a personal financial strain that forced you to not only give up luxury but also to cut back on necessity?” (Cough, Tiffany’s, Newt, cough). And they asked about invention: Are you the sort of person who would call Palestinians an “invented people”? (Cough, Newt, you did that Friday, cough.) There was even an effort to ask whether the federal government should mandate healthy eating choices, but it fizzled out before it reached The Great White One.

Newt, predictably for a man who has made a career of talking about himself, managed to do well. He landed one of the evening’s memorable zingers — Mitt, he said, the only reason you’re not a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994. Romney made a good rejoinder — if he hadn’t lost out on another occasion, he’d also be a pro football player by now. But this might have been the highlight of Mitt’s night. It was a rough evening; he looked prematurely orange and tired. At one point, in an effort to put one of Rick Perry’s two sickly talking points out of its misery, he offered him a $10,000 bet that his book hadn’t said what Perry said it said.

“I’ll tell you what. Ten thousand bucks. Ten-thousand-dollar bet.”

Perry demurred. “I”m not in the betting business.”

Nothing says, “I’m in the 1 percent” like “Here, my version of a put-up-or-shut-up bet runs to five figures.” That won’t do much for Romney, who may return home to find Occupants on his lawn.

The three I’s revealed that Gingrich isn’t going anywhere immediately. The infidelity question was a masterpiece of camerawork, panning to all the candidates’ long-suffering wives or husbands, who looked uniformly tired and heavily made-up. Marcus Bachmann appeared to be wiping away a tear. “If you would cheat on your wife, you would cheat on your business partner,” Rick Perry said, implying a worrisomely close business relationship. Romney noted that “I love this country” — which, incidentally, is Gingrich’s explanation for why he committed adultery in the first place. But Gingrich dodged the Love This Country So Much I Lost Control Of My Bodily Functions argument and his response hit all the right notes — “I said up-front, openly, I’ve made mistakes at times. I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness; I’ve had to seek reconciliation. I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather.” Nothing pushes someone’s extramarital encounters out of your mind faster than the reminder that he is a grandfather.

His response about the Palestinians being an “invented people” was similarly assured; Romney suggested that he would regret the response, and he disagreed. He said that he’d spoken “as a historian,” which is an argument I hope to incorporate into my life as soon as possible. “When I said that you had no right to exist,” I will point out, “I spoke as a historian, with reference to the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire.” Ron Paul pointed out that this was somewhat silly, but who listens to Ron Paul? (Aside, of course, from the mob of irate and dedicated commenters about to descend on me right now?)

The indulgence question posed the most problems. Perry managed to marshall his powerful life story for a few moments before the English language mauled him, noting that “as a 27-year-old boy,” “luxury was not in my lexicon.” (Neither was “lexicon.”) Newt, after noting that he grew up in an apartment over a gas station, admitted that, “I had several relatives in the last few years who were out of work,” which sounds worrisomely like “It’s okay, I have lots of poor friends.” “Deny myself an indulgence?” Gingrich seemed to say. “No, but I think I know a guy who did.” It appeared to take a lot of digging to come up with examples. “Once, strolling through Tiffany’s, I saw a man putting items on layaway.” “I gave up the basic necessity of toilet paper, replacing it with cloth of gold.” “A guy making sacrifices once raked my lawn.” The money is where Gingrich’s pitfall lies.

On the whole, Romney was a little battered but emerged with dignity intact.

But Gingrich always appeared to be enjoying himself. He mouthed, “No,” when Romney suggested he might regret his “invented people” remark. He even winked.

Of course. The only thing Newt Gingrich enjoys more than debates is Debates Expressly About Newt Gingrich.

The I’s had it. Winner of the night’s debate? Newt Romney.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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