WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney is now officially in trouble.
The former Massachusetts governor, who has been the leading Republican presidential candidate for much of the past year, entered the latest primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday night needing to knock Newt Gingrich backwards and stop his gathering momentum.
But Romney came out on the short end of most of his exchanges with the former speaker of the House. And to make things worse, he committed a major gaffe that hurt his own prospects. During an exchange with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Romney proposed a $10,000 bet over whether Perry had accurately quoted from Romney's book.
It reinforced the image of Romney as a wealthy businessman who is out of touch with regular Americans. Response to the remark was enormous and instantaneous. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign bought up a website, www.10kbet.com. A campaign official confirmed the purchase to The Huffington Post.
And the Democratic National Committee shot out a press release entitled, "Here's What the Average American Family Can Buy with $10,000." It said the sum equals four months of pay for many American families, a year of college tuition at a state school, three times what the average family spends on groceries annually, and a year's worth of mortgage payments for "the typical American home."
Romney adviser Stuart Stevens tried to brush off the comment, telling reporters it was "a very human thing to do to get someone to shut up when they're not telling the truth."
Gingrich, meanwhile, handled his most perilous moments with aplomb. His biggest test came when ABC News moderators Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos raised the issue of Gingrich's past marital infidelities. Gingrich, who is married to his third wife, acknowledged the seriousness of his past missteps and argued gently that he is now a different person.
"I think people have to look at a person to who they are going to loan the presidency, and they have a right to ask every single question," he said. "I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I am a person they can trust."
Gingrich also addressed his past support for a health care mandate directly, rather than trying to evade the question or lawyer his way through an answer. He argued, accurately, that for some time a health care mandate was favored by conservatives puzzling over how to fix the problem of rising health care costs. The mandate became odious to the right once it was included in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. That individual mandate is now at the center of legal challenges to the federal law.
During the first exchange between Romney and Gingrich, Romney hesitated for a moment when prompted by Stephanopoulos to name areas of disagreement between himself and the former speaker. He then ran through a list of a few items before reaching his favored talking point. More than issues, he said, it's their resumes that set them apart.
"I understand how the economy works," Romney said, positioning himself as the businessman with private sector experience and Gingrich as the lifelong "career politician."
Gingrich shot back, "Let's be candid. The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to [Sen.] Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
"It's a bit much," Gingrich added. "You'd have been a 17-year politician by now if you'd won. That's all I'm saying on that."
Even when Romney tried to highlight controversial comments by Gingrich, the Georgian used their exchanges to play up that fire in the belly and bellicosity that has endeared him to the Republican conservative base, which sees in Romney a technocratic phony who says what he thinks his audience wants to hear and does nothing to inspire them.
Romney and Gingrich went back and forth over Gingrich's comment that the Palestinians are an "invented people." Toward the end of the discussion, Romney attempted to use the issue to paint Gingrich as someone who would shoot from the hip as president and whose lack of discipline would cause problems for the U.S. abroad and undermine the nation's foreign diplomacy.
"If I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability, and make sure that in a setting like this, anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying, I don't do anything that will harm that process," Romney said in reference to Israel.
"And therefore before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu and say, 'Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do? Let's work together because we're partners.'"
"I'm not a bomb-thrower, rhetorically or literally," Romney said.
Gingrich, who could be seen winking to someone in the audience as his rival talked, turned the contrast around to his own advantage and, in the process, effectively called Romney "timid."
"I think sometimes that it's helpful to have a president of the United States who has the courage to tell the truth," Gingrich said, arguing that then-President Ronald Reagan went around his national security advisers to call the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and "overruled" the State Department to utter his famous "Tear down this wall" line.
"Reagan believed the power of truth restated to the world and reframed the world," Gingrich said. "I'm a Reaganite. I'm proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid."
Gingrich has overtaken Romney in both national polls and surveys of voters in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, where the debate on Saturday was held, and South Carolina and Florida. Gingrich is also gaining on Romney in New Hampshire, which is Romney's home turf.
Now, with a little more than three weeks before Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, which begin the Republican nomination process, Romney's candidacy is increasingly in peril -- although talk of him being knocked out anytime soon is quite premature.
Romney still has huge organizational and infrastructure advantages over Gingrich, which could enable him to win the nomination despite a terrible January. But if Gingrich is victorious in three of the four contests in the first month (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida in that order), Romney could find it difficult to make process arguments about the number of delegates needed to win the nomination in the face of a candidate with such momentum.
If Gingrich takes on water of any sort, Iowa's voters could throw a curve ball. They still have ultra-conservative alternatives, such as Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa). Perry, in particular, had a strong debate performance on Saturday.
In addition, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has a devoted and substantial following and a polished and organized campaign. He is polling very strong, just under 20 percent, in Iowa and could yet outperform that number.
Nonetheless, after the debate ended, former George W. Bush adviser Matthew Dowd said he thought Gingrich was now the candidate to beat, not Romney.
"Mitt Romney had to stop some bleeding. I don't think he did that," Dowd said, calling Gingrich "more of the inevitable nominee."