They said it was going to be a joint rumble against new frontrunner Newt Gingrich, a veritable dogpile in Des Moines. But the ex-House speaker showed that he is the smartest guy on the stage, that stage. And that all those years of honing his media chops on C-SPAN and his study of media dynamics underlie the game changer in this race.
In contrast, Mitt Romney, as I suggested in my piece yesterday on the Huffington Post, "Newtonian Motion: Action Begets Flawed Reaction," revealed live and in person that he really doesn't know how to get after Gingrich. And that he is a guy who doesn't realize that slick and shallow only works in a commercial.
Media skills were dominant in this debate, and Gingrich has them. He parried every attack from every direction, and turned some of them to his decided advantage. And then there was Romney. Remind me, where did people get the idea he's a good debater? From "debates," really joint appearances, in which, oddly, no one asked him tough questions, perhaps?
Presented very early on with the opportunity to succinctly lay out his case against the noted alternate history novelist and self-styled million dollar-plus "historian" of Freddie Mac, Romney looked, well, startled. Then he burbled forth three points: Gingrich favors establishing a colony on the Moon, he wants to change child labor laws, and he has a different version of cutting the capital gains tax. Oh, and Gingrich is a career politician.
To put it in terms that a Romney-style country clubber can grasp, the erstwhile longtime putative frontrunner found his weak serve slammed back over the net right at his Max Headroom forehead.
"The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," Gingrich quite accurately noted.
As for a colony on the Moon, Gingrich is for the exploration of space and proud of it, especially of giving young people the opportunity to dream of careers in science and technology.
Things got dodgier for Gingrich on child labor laws. But his answer that lots of poor kids can get work experience while taking jobs from public employee janitors naturally found favor with the Republican crowd, as he knew it would.
As for Romney's frankly weird point on capital gains taxes -- he always betrays his Richie Rich financier roots -- in which we beheld the spectacle of a rich guy and a really rich guy disputing how much to cut their taxes, Gingrich had an easy answer. "Your capital gains cut is lower than Obama's," he told the hapless ex-leveraged buyout artist.
Trying to recover from Gingrich's devastating return of serve on the "career politician" issue, Romney offered some trademark lame humor, referring to his 1994 Senate loss to Ted Kennedy: "If I'd been able to get in the NFL I'd have been a football star."
Well, Mitt, the NFL is another big league you're not ready for.
As the poor fellow definitively proved not long after that.
What on Earth was Romney thinking trying to make a $10,000 bet on stage in Iowa? It ain't Monte Carlo.
The Des Moines debate was billed by some as the first Republican presidential debate since the emergence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the GOP presidential frontrunner.
Actually, it's the second. But it is the first since it dawned on the media and political establishments that Gingrich's lead is real.
Notably, the rest of the pack, sensing Romney blood in the water, did not go after Gingrich alone, but Newt and Mitt together. And Gingrich had better answers than Romney, who clearly is in deep water when challenged on his "facts."
Responding to a raft of attacks, Gingrich said that most of it was wrong. That he'd "fought against cap and trade" and Obamacare, And that the money he'd made was "in ways totally different from what you describe," with his speeches a much bigger part of his income than consulting, not to mention his "13 New York Times bestsellers" as an author. Not that he's counting, or anything.
When ABC's George Stephanopoulus raised the marital fidelity issue for Gingrich, who carried on an affair with a staffer while impeaching President Bill Clinton, Rick Perry (who was much better last night, too late) delivered this zinger: "If you cheat on your wife you'll cheat on your business partners."
Romney tried to avoid saying anything, though we all know his campaign is working hard to stir up the notion that Gingrich is immoral, corrupt, and irrational. He noted that his first ad is about character, but claimed that he did it in response to Obama. Which no one believes, so why say it?
For his part, after taking the hits, Gingrich acknowledged many mistakes, noting that he had "gone to God" and that he is a 68-year old grandfather. He parried very well and showed humility, feigned or not. "It's a real issue... They have right to ask every question." The people need to trust whomever they "loan the presidency."
Gingrich hit the ball out of the park when Stephanopoulos brought up his description of the Palestinians as "an invented people," which I'm convinced he threw out there to regain the media spotlight on Friday.
While the others criticized Gingrich for timing and tone, they didn't dispute the substance. How could they? They're in a party in the grip of evangelical and neocon ideologies which place the right-wing conception of Israel at the center of U.S. geopolitics.
Gingrich, who knew full well that he would take heat from the liberal U.S. media and pro-Palestinian international media -- which is why he did it -- was thus free to posture as Reagan and Churchill wrapped into one, a favorite mode of his:
"Every day rockets are fired into Israel... Hamas says no Jew will remain ... A Palestinian Authority official said Israel has no right to exist... These people are terrorists and teach terrorism in schools... We pay for this through our foreign aid... We have to stop the lying... Palestinian was not a term until 1977... This is a propaganda war."
After this punchy Newtonian riffing (which Palestinian officials deny), Romney had to meekly agree, except for the timing and advisability of the statement.
"I'm not a bomb thrower," he said. Among other things.
Which only gave Gingrich the last word to slam home his primary positioning. "It's helpful to have a president with courage to tell the truth." Reagan, he said, talked of the Soviet as "an evil empire" and told Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin over the objections of his establishment foreign policy advisers.
Game, set, and media match. If Barack Obama debates this guy, he better bring his A-game.
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