There are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of Newt Gingrich's surge over the past few weeks. Sure, he's ahead in recent polls out of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. But Republican voters have proved fickle this election, bouncing from one candidate to the next gaffe after gaffe. After his campaign almost ran out of money and his staff fled over the summer, Gingrich had one of the thinnest field operations of any candidate—it was so disorganized that he won't even be on the primary ballot in Missouri after missing the filing deadline.
But Gingrich hasn't been subject to much scrutiny, thanks to the Thanksgiving news slowdown and a break from the debates. When the candidates gathered in Des Moines on Saturday night, it was just the second debate—and the first one unrelated to foreign policy—since Gingrich entered the spotlight, and the candidates were bound to attack the front-runner.
For a candidate who had spent most of his time at debates arguing with the moderators' questions, Gingrich handled the attacks from his peers remarkably well. Early in the proceedings, ABC's George Stephanopoulos egged Romney into attacking Gingrich. When Romney touted his time in the "private sector," Gingrich fired back with a critique many of us in the media have laughed about all year. "Let's be candid," Gingrich said. "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994. … You'd have been a 17-year career politician by now, if you'd won."
The debate's moderators weren't finished poking at Gingrich. The Des Moines Register asked the candidates, "Should voters consider marital fidelity in making their choices for president?" The question went around the stage to each of the other candidates before thrice-married Gingrich had a chance to respond. "Individuals who have been—infidelity with their spouse, I think that sends a very powerful message," Rick Perry said. "If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn't you cheat on your business partner or why wouldn't you cheat on anybody for that matter?"
Rick Santorum—the most committed social conservative in the race—followed the same logic. "I think character issues do count. And I think all of your record—personal as well as political record—is there, for the public to look at."
It's a tough line of attack for Gingrich, who must win over Iowa's social-conservative bloc—the same set of voters whose driving ideology in the 2010 midterms was to protect "traditional" marriage by shutting out gay people—if he hopes to carry the caucus state. His personal record couldn't be filled with more hypocrisy; he left his first wife shortly after she recovered from cancer and reportedly said at the time that she was "not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the president." Gingrich proceeded to have an extended affair with his then-House staffer and current wife Callista while he was still married to his second wife and in the middle of impeachment procedures against Bill Clinton.
Gingrich had his typical look of contempt as the other candidates gave their answers, and it almost appeared as if he would lose his cool once the moderators directed the moral-character question his way. But instead, Gingrich was calm, offering a clearheaded deflection. "First of all, I think it is a real issue," he said, appeasing the conservative base by not dismissing their concern. "[People] have to have a feeling that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency," Gingrich continued. "And I think it's a very, very important issue. And I think people have to render judgment. In my case, I've 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. But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust."
Later in the evening Gingrich would go on to defend his flawed description of Palestinians as an "invented people," but foreign policy has not been a part of the Republican conversation this year, aside from threats against Iran. After Mitt Romney's bonehead declaration that his standard bet is $10,000—securing his image as a younger version of Rich Uncle Pennybags—and with such limited time left on the calendar (there is just one last debate before Iowans vote on January 3), it's time to accept the fact that Newt Gingrich may become the next Republican nominee.