After a dozen different bouts in venues across the country, the Republican presidential debates have become a little like NASCAR; part of the thrill of watching is that you might see someone go up in flames.
But last night, no one did. Mitt Romney stuck to his usual combination of pointed attacks on President Barack Obama—“I don’t think the president understands the private sector, and that some businesses fail”—but refrained from engaging Newt Gingrich or any other candidates on stage. Romney's big moment came when he tried to answer Chris Wallace on the question of his ideological purity. Romney maintained that he was a “reliable conservative” and explained that his deviations, particularly on abortion and gay rights, were the product of circumstance—he was governor of Massachusetts for pete’s sake! Of course, I’m not sure that I would find that reassuring if I were a conservative; in the event that Mitt Romney were elected with a Democratic Congress, would he stand up for conservative principles? Or would he try to cut a deal for the sake of getting something done?
As the current front-runner, Newt Gingrich faced his fair share of questions from the moderators and criticism from his competitors. Michele Bachmann, for example, was relentless in her attacks on the former House speaker, challenging him on the $1.6 million he received from Freddie Mac—which prompted an inspired defense of government-sponsored enterprises from Gingrich—and his willingness to endorse Republican politicians who supported late-term abortions.
But while Gingrich was on the defensive during the debate, it’s hard to say that he was diminished by the experience. Throughout, he made outsized comparisons between himself and every historical figure under the sun, ranging from Ronald Reagan to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. None of the attacks rattled him, and while audience members weren’t enthusiastic about all of his answers—especially when he questioned the veracity of Bachmann’s information—they weren’t hostile either.
The most contentious exchange came when Congressman Ron Paul, who is within striking distance of first place in the Iowa caucuses, challenged the candidates on their commitment to military action against Iran, and the larger idea that the world is a more dangerous place than it was during the Cold War. “It’s another Iraq coming,” Paul said with regard to Iran. “It’s war propaganda coming. To me, the greatest danger is we will have a president who will overreact.” This sparked an unusual bit of outrage from Bachmann, who declared that she has “never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul.” Mitt Romney also took care to distance himself from Paul and draw a contrast with Obama, whom he accused—untruthfully—of conducting a foreign policy based on “pretty please.”
You could easily award Rick Perry with a badge for “most improved performance.” No longer a stuttering mess, Perry delivered his lines with aplomb and held his own against his competitors. Indeed, in a memorable moment, he made light of his performance and presented himself as an underrated player in the nomination contest. “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses,” he said. Sports commentators are still divided over whether Tebow is a good player, but Perry is right to say that he is undervalued by observers of the Republican primary race. Unlike Gingrich or the other “anti-Romneys,” Perry has a compelling background, executive experience, and institutional support within the GOP. What’s more, he’s built a genuine campaign and is second only to Romney in his ability to raise money. Already, conservative elites are beginning to re-evaluate their early dismissal of the Texas governor, and if Gingrich falters, Republican voters are sure to be behind them.