GOP Debate Wrap: The Iowa Sprint Begins

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The last full GOP debate before voting gets under way in Iowa leaves Gingrich wounded and Romney sitting pretty
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SIOUX CITY, IOWA -- The debating chapter of the 2012 Republican pre-primary has closed. Here's where things stand for the turbulent field of candidates: Newt Gingrich is far from dead, but he has taken fire and may be fading. A resurgent second tier of Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry is clamoring for a second look from Iowa voters. Ron Paul has sneaked into remarkably strong position despite -- or perhaps because of -- his refusal to pay lip service to Republican orthodoxy. And all this chaos is playing right into the hands of Mitt Romney, who has regained a steady footing after a couple of shaky weeks.

And now the real campaign begins.

Over the next two and a half weeks, the candidates will barnstorm Iowa, straining mightily to bend the storylines baked by Thursday night's debate to their advantage. This whole bizarre, foreshortened nominating contest has been shaped by the 13 debates to an unusual degree, but now the candidates are tasked with the old-fashioned work of wooing the elusive, skeptical tribe of Iowa caucus-goers. (The exception: Jon Huntsman, who participated in Thursday's debate but will quickly decamp for New Hampshire, where he is staking his campaign.)

A quick rundown of what we learned from the last debate before the Iowa caucuses:

1. Gingrich gets bloodied. Everybody was gunning for the former House speaker, with motivations that seemed a mix of political necessity and personal resentment. He has proved difficult to trap in the past. But he did not come off well defending the conservative bete noire Freddie Mac from a barrage of strong criticism from Bachmann and Paul. Paul repeatedly spelled out the term "government-sponsored enterprise" and bludgeoned Gingrich with it, leading Gingrich to respond: "The term government-sponsored enterprise has a very wide range of things that do a great deal of good." Bachmann affected shock at this, saying, "That's absolutely wrong. We can't have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They need to be shut down, not built up." Gingrich accused her of not having her facts straight, but Bachmann came back strong: "You don't need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence-peddling in Washington, D.C." 

Later in the debate, Bachmann took issue with Gingrich again accusing her of not being factual, describing it as a pattern that was not fair to her as a "serious candidate for president of the United States." The highlighting of Gingrich's condescending manner, particularly with regard to the only woman candidate, was another bad moment for him.

Gingrich had a better second half of the debate, with fiery denunciations of out-of-control liberal judges that the crowd loved. To a question about the Keystone pipeline, he drew laughs by referencing the most common line of attack against him: "You know, Neil, I sometimes get accused of using language that's too strong, so I've been standing here editing. I'm very concerned about not appearing to be zany." He then proceeded to get rather worked up about the "left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco."

The bottom line: Debates have been Gingrich's strength all year. In this one, some doubts were sowed.

2. The return of Bachmann, Perry and Santorum. These three are all fighting for the same sliver of the Iowa vote, and based on Thursday, those voters may be torn between them. Bachmann had one of her strongest performances, giving no quarter to Gingrich and getting into a heated scrap with Paul over whether military action against Iran ought to be considered a possibility. Perry, who is working hard to earn a second look after his disastrous late introduction, was firing on all cylinders, flogging his crowd-pleasing plan for a part-time Congress and, most memorably, comparing himself to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow: "There are people that stood up and said...you know, he is not playing the game right. ... I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses." It was an obviously canned line, but a memorable one. Santorum, who is a good technical debater but has a hard time hiding the edge of resentment in his voice, did well with an inspiring paean to "how we built America"; he also went after Romney for being, he alleged, too tolerant of judicially imposed gay marriage in Massachusetts, an attack that will be red meat for some hard-core Iowa social conservatives.

3. Ron Paul rallies his private army. The Texas congressman has a tendency to ramble, but early in the debate at least, he gave some of the strongest answers to questions about his electability -- "Anybody up here could probably beat Obama ... I think he's beating himself" -- and earmarks, deftly turning around the accusation that he's been hypocritical by applying for federal funds for his district while voting and fulminating against earmarks in principle. "They take our money, they take our highway funds, and we have every right to apply for them to come back," he said, moving on to an attack on federal spending by the executive branch.

But things got messy for Paul with a lengthy back-and-forth on Iran with the moderators and Bachmann. He called the idea that Iran was on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons "war propaganda," warned of another Iraq, and insisted that a president must not "overreact." He got some cheers for that. But Bachmann declared, "I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard for Ron Paul," saying the real danger was "underreaction." Every exchange like this one fires up Paul's fans, but also highlights his distance from GOP orthodoxy, imperiling his campaign's attempt to mainstream him as a candidate.

4. Romney has calmed down. In the last few debates and some press interviews, Romney had been jumpy and agitated, culminating in his damaging offer to bet Perry $10,000 in the debate before this one. On Thursday, Snippy Mitt was gone, replaced with a more patient, graceful model of the Romney-bot. Rather than get exasperated and try to brush off yet another accusation of flip-flopping, he went through his conversion on abortion step by step and with frankness. As a gubernatorial candidate, he acknowledged, "I was effectively pro-choice." But when a bill came to his desk "that would have created new embryos for the purpose of destroying them," he said, "I studied it in some depth and concluded I simply could not sign on to take human life." That certainly won't satisfy everyone, but it was the sort of understandable, plain-language explanation, unburdened by technicalities and legalese, that Romney often whiffs.

The better the other candidates do -- all of them -- the better off is Romney, with his strategy to divide and conquer. His biggest and perhaps only danger has always been the rise of a credible, unifying single alternative candidate. There's still time for that person to emerge, but based on Thursday night, Iowa voters will be hard pressed to decide who it is. And that's good for Mitt Romney.

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

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