The circular firing squad returned last night at Drake University in Des Moines, as the GOP contenders took to the stage in an ABC-Des Moines Register-sponsored debate. Michael Barone in the Examiner:
It is just 24 days from the Iowa precinct caucuses, and at least a few of those days-Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day-are off limits to politics. Candidates who had been willing to hang back and speak positively in earlier encounters suddenly seem to be feeling the pressure to knock down one or more of those rivals who appear to be standing in their way.
Front-runner Newt Gingrich took most of the flak, and retained his usual aplomb. Alexander Burns of Politico:
The Republican presidential candidates went quickly after Newt Gingrich on the debate stage in Iowa Saturday night, describing the newest GOP frontrunner as a Washington insider with a record of espousing outlandish ideas.
But the former House speaker, whose debate performances throughout the summer and fall enabled him to rise from the political dead, never appeared to falter.
Rick Perry went after both front-runners, and may have provoked a gaffe (in the eye of some commentators) from Mitt Romney, over the issue of alleged changes to the text of his book in the paperback edition, omitting the claim that Massachusetts individual health care insurance mandate should be a model for the nation. In response, Romney offered to be Perry ten thousand dollars, which Perry declined, saying he wasn't in the "betting business."
Commentators such as Michelle Cottle of the Daily Beast, James Oliphant of the LA Times, and the Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich saw this as demonstrating Romney's distance from the oridinary American, unable to contemplate such a bet, while the plutocrat Mitt might be carrying it in his wallet as spare change.
Michael Barone disagrees:
The ABC commentators thought this was dreadful. I'm not quite so sure, though it has been my observation that even the richest men I know take a bet for the lesser sum of $1,000 very seriously, and certainly most ordinary Iowa and New Hampshire voters would never consider betting $10,000 on anything. (Or would they? Iowa has one of the nation's largest riverboat gambling operations and New Hampshire back in the 1960s, eager for revenue but unwilling to impose taxes, instituted the first late twentieth century state lotteries.)
One of the most important exchanges came from Mitt Romney over Newt Gingrich's assertion that the Palestinians are an "invented people," for which he has taken accusations of racism and worse, although anyone who knows the history realizes that it is true. "Palestinian" used to refer to Jews who lived in the pre-independence territory of the Palestine Mandate. Only after Israel's victory in the 1976 war did the jihad against Israel morph into a "nationalist" movement on behalf of a poor exploited people - the newly invented "Palestinian" nation, who were given a flag and a national identity. Romney took the position that Newt's formulation would not help advance America in real world diplomacy.
Richard Baehr notes that this is a way for Gingrich to separate himself a bit from the other candidates on this issue. Romney is probably the favorite among more Jewish Republicans than Gingrich, though both have a lot of support . Richard is skeptical about how this would change his policies. Would a President Gingrich demand that UNWRA disband, and all Palestinian refugee matters be treated like all other refugee issues? That is what should happen. Gingrich is a very good talker, but as Obama learned (at least we can hope he learned) , when you become president, you actually have to do.
Naitonal security played a comparatively minor role in the discussion, once again.
It remains to be seen who will gain and who will lose in the polls in the coming days. Marc Thiessen sees the two front runners consolidating their leads. But Barone is not so sure:
The ABC commentators seemed pretty sure that Gingrich, the frontrunner in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida polls, and pressing for the lead in New Hampshire, came across ahead. Certainly Romney seemed somewhat more flustered and defensive than he has in most previous debates. Yet I think Gingrich may have sustained more damage than they suggest. Bachmann's hard-hitting attacks may not have been ignored by Iowans who gave her the lead in polls in that state last summer. And Santorum may finally be making some headway. Any gains for either are likely, it seems, to come more out of Gingrich's hide than Romney's. And while Romney did not have a superb night, the spate of negative attacks from and to almost all directions insulates him from the risk which I argue in my Sunday Examiner column he has taken by launching negative attacks on Gingrich. If he were alone in going negative, we might see the dynamic of candidate A attacking candidate B which hurts both A and B and therefore helps candidate C (like John Kerry in Iowa in 2004 after Dick Gephardt attacked Howard Dean). When there's lots of flak, incoming from all directions and headed in most directions too, the risks for the attacker are likely to be lesser. My conclusion: the plot thickens.
That just about sums it up. The future nominee remains a mystery. We have seen front runners crash and burn before. Like him or hate him, Newt does have a record of stepping into nasty stuff based on his tendency to shoot from the lip. Romney seems to remain at his ceiling of about a quarter of the GOP base.