Gingrich: Great Debater, Greatly Flawed Candidate

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He's great on the stage, but if you watched closely enough, you could still see his heavy baggage littering it
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Was that a wink?


Looked like it to me: As Rep. Ron Paul accused Newt Gingrich of flip-flopping, lobbying and putting taxpayers' money in his pockets, the former House speaker looked into the audience and winked. As if to say: "I got this."

And, for the most part, he did. The latest GOP front-runner showed Saturday night why many Republican voters suddenly believe he is the best candidate to challenge President Obama. For all his flaws -- and those who worked with Gingrich say he has many of them, probably too many to be president -- the former House speaker is a brilliant debater:

-- He took a punch as well as he threw them.

-- He defended his checkered record, even if that meant steamrolling the truth (Gingrich claimed he never lobbied or backed cap-and-trade legislation).

-- He kept his ego and temper in check. Barely.

Yes, Gingrich is a great debater. But he's not a great candidate and, if you watched closely enough, you could almost see his heavy baggage littering the debate stage.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry alluded to Gingrich's marital difficulties: "I've always been of the opinion that if you cheat on your wife," Perry said, "you'll cheat on your business partner."

Gingrich kept his cool. "I've made mistakes at times," he replied. "I've had to go to God for forgiveness."

Early in the debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took dead aim at Gingrich's record and rhetoric on climate change, lunar landings and child labor laws. He also accused Gingrich of being a career politician.

Gingrich seized the moment. "Let's be candid," he said, "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in '94."

Killer line.

Yet in the next breath, Gingrich showed why he would be a vulnerable candidate against Obama. Defending his proposal to put poor kids to work in school cafeterias, the former House speaker said, "I'll stand by the idea: Young people ought to learn how to work. Middle kids do work routinely. We need to give poor kids the same opportunity."

What? Poor kids don't work? Spoken by a Washington insider, a callous and cold politician who is out of touch with the rest of America.

His churlish side showed when Rep. Michele Bachmann accused the two leading candidates of being "Newt Romney" clones. Gingrich struck back with a disconnected answer that misled the audience about the extent of his lobbying and took a detour so he could brag about his best-selling books. "I know that doesn't happen to fit your model," Gingrich snapped at Bachmann, "but it happens to be true."

Viewers were left to wonder whether Gingrich's response was more arrogant, inaccurate or irrelevant.

But, hey, he's a great debater.


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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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