Debate Wrap: Gingrich in the Spotlight, for Better and Worse

The former House speaker and newly minted GOP front-runner had a strong debate night Tuesday -- but might have damaged his candidacy with immigration comments

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Tuesday night's CNN national-security debate in Washington was a meaty affair featuring candidates actually making arguments to defend differing positions -- imagine that. The forum proved a double-edged sword for Newt Gingrich, the newly anointed front-runner of the moment: As he usually has in debates, he turned in a strong performance. But he also found himself defending a position on immigration that's at odds with the Republican base -- and that could come back to haunt him politically.

A few takeaways from the pre-Thanksgiving face-off:

1. A "heartless" moment for Gingrich? The former House speaker found himself mounting a forceful argument for comprehensive immigration reform, including legalization for some illegal immigrants, particularly those brought to the U.S. as children. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended that same position in an earlier debate -- saying to those who would punish such children, "I don't think you have a heart" -- it went over like a lead zeppelin with conservatives, many of whom haven't given him a second look ever since. Gingrich took a perilously similar line: "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration family which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, let's be humane in enforcing the law, without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families." 

As Michele Bachmann gingerly pointed out, that's a position many on the right consider tantamount to amnesty. Perry jumped on board with Gingrich's stance, while Mitt Romney disagreed, saying what's needed is "turning off the magnets of amnesty." Gingrich has a history of moderation on immigration and outreach to Hispanic voters -- he voted for Reagan's amnesty bill in the 1980s -- a legacy that could serve him well in a general election, but is likely to become an obstacle to getting to the general election first. As Republican primary voters give Gingrich a closer look, his willingness to stake our unpopular positions, then defend them with his usual indignant certitude, could be a problem.

2. Nonetheless, a good night for Newt. Judging from the polls, a lot of Republican voters tuned into the debate looking to pin their hopes on the surging Gingrich, and he gave them a lot to like, with snappy comebacks and ferocious defenses of tough security positions. At the very beginning of the debate, he argued in favor of the Patriot Act against Ron Paul's civil libertarianism: "I don't want a law that says after we lose a major American city, we're sure going to come and find you," he said. "I want a law that says, you try to take out an American city, we're going to stop you." Gingrich's facility for argument was on ample display, and he even skipped the media-bashing that's such a tried and true weapon in his debate arsenal.

It wasn't all smooth sailing: Gingrich jumped into a dispute about Afghanistan troop levels only to ignore the question and wander off topic, saying, "I'm a little confused about what exactly we're currently debating." And his overall performance could well end up overshadowed by his immigration heresy. Before the debate had even ended, Bachmann's campaign was out with an email headlined, "Newt Gingrich's Open Door to Illegal Immigrant Amnesty" -- surely not the last where that came from.

3. The Huntsman-Paul axis. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman found himself on the same side as Texas Rep. Ron Paul on a number of issues, from civil liberties (they are for them) to keeping lots of troops in Afghanistan (they are against that). On the former, Paul responded to Gingrich by saying, "This is like saying that we need a policeman in every house, a camera in every house because we want to prevent child-beating and wife-beating. You can prevent crimes by becoming a police state." On Afghanistan, Huntsman had a spirited exchange with Romney, who said commanders on the ground should dictate troop levels: "At the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief. Commander in chief. Of course you're going to listen to the generals. But I also remember when people listened to the generals in 1967, and we had a certain course of action in South Asia that didn't serve our interests very well." Huntsman and Paul similarly echoed each other on cutting defense spending.

Huntsman had a good debate, showing off his foreign-affairs expertise, turning repeatedly to the economy as a national security issue and getting a lot of airtime. But in a party where Paul is clearly an outlier, Huntsman's alignment with the Texan might not be a winner.

4. Romney: still untouched. It wasn't a standout night for the former Massachusetts governor, who made his usual points in his usual matter-of-fact way. He seemed surprised when Huntsman had a good comeback to his commanders-on-the-ground line, and faded to the background for many of the debate's more substantive exchanges. Romney came alive at the end with a good argument against Perry's proposal for a no-fly zone over Syria, saying, "They have 5,000 tanks in Syria. A no-fly zone wouldn't be the right military action -- maybe a no-drive zone. This is a nation which is not bombing its people."

But it was a good night for Romney in the sense that the other candidates, as they so often have in the past, again refrained from taking him on. This time it was Perry who notably took a pass: "Here we go again, Mitt. You and I standing by each other again and you used the words about the magnets," Perry began in response to Romney's argument about immigration amnesty. But the expected segue into Perry's previously deployed attack line, about the illegal immigrants once hired to work on Romney's property, never came. 

5. Herman Cain: still flailing. The businessman continues to prove his inability to get through the most basic exchange about foreign policy. He said he would orient the Transportation Security Administration toward "targeted identification," but then couldn't define what that meant. Asked if he would support an Israeli attack on Iran, he fell back on his usual strategy of a heavily qualified, lean-on-advisers answer that frequently and perplexingly mentioned the "mountainous terrain" in Iran, as if that topographical factoid were enough to make him knowledgeable. And to add to the confusion, he called Wolf Blitzer "Blitz."

6. Bachmann, Perry, Santorum: running out of time to make a splash. Bachmann had another good debate -- the congresswoman, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, is well versed in foreign policy, confounding those who would dismiss her as a lightweight. She called Perry "highly naive" for wanting to cut off aid to Pakistan, which she termed "too nuclear to fail," and made a fluent defense of realism in the face of ideological glibness. And Bachmann cautiously but successfully drew Gingrich into the immigration dialogue that could prove the night's most significant exchange politically. Perry, for his part, didn't fall on his face and had a good command of detail. Santorum, as usual, knew his stuff and wanted to make sure you noticed (though he also said, "Africa was a country on the brink").

But all three candidates, who are now the field's bottom-feeders, need a breakout moment at this point to reignite -- or, in Santorum's case, ignite for the first time -- their prospects among Republican primary voters. And the bottom line was, none of them got it.

Image credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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