…which I didn’t watch. I read some of it, and many comments about it as well, and watched some video excerpts.
The consensus seems to be that for the most part Gingrich looked rattled and off his game, and that Romney was more forceful than usual. Paul was Paul (who else would he be?), and Santorum acquitted himself well but not enough to significantly change anything for him.
So I’ll stick to talking about the two dueling frontrunners.
Gingrich’s supporters are drawn to him for many reasons, but chief among them are his belief in and defense of conservative principles (in the political arena, anyway) and his aggressive and skilled debating. “He’s a fighter,” many say approvingly, and he certainly is that. But it’s not just the fact that he’s not afraid to fight that draw them to him, it’s that they see him as a fluid and skilled thinker on his feet, able to give as good as he gets and to win the battle through smart thinking as much as pugnaciousness.
Romney is disliked by his detractors for many reasons as well, but among them are the perception that he has the opposite traits: no core conservative principles, and wimpy and weak. One big fear is that he would not be able to go on the offensive against President Obama, and that could be fatal to the chances of defeating the president in the 2012 election.
Last night’s debate seemed to upend those assumptions—most particularly the latter, the one about aggressiveness. Romney went after Gingrich effectively, and Gingrich looked angry but unfocused and—well, sort of weak. And it didn’t happen just once, but many times.
As for the conservative principles, Gingrich made what I believe was a tactical blunder when he continued to attack Romney from the left, as he had with his Bain criticisms. This time Gingrich’s point was even weaker: Romney’s investments in Fannie and Freddie. Here’s part of that exchange, in case you missed it [emphasis mine]:
[Gingrich speaking]We began digging in after Monday night because frankly I’d had about enough of this. We discovered to our shock, Governor Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that. Governor Romney owns share — has an investment in Goldman Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians.
So maybe Governor Romney in the spirit of openness should tell us how much money he’s made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments? And let’s be clear about that.
ROMNEY: First of all, my investments are not made by me. My investments for the last 10 years have been in a blind trust, managed by a trustee. Secondly, the investments that they’ve made, we’ve learned about this as we made our financial disclosure, have been in mutual funds and bonds. I don’t own stock in either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds. And Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
It goes on, but that moment must have been a rough (and surprising) one for Gingrich, and it was emblematic of what happened during the debate. I monitored the reaction to that remark by looking at comments on some very popular blogs, and one of the things I noticed at that point (and this was among people who are for the most part neither Newt nor Mitt supporters) was that the audience thought that was a moment when Gingrich looked foolish. But that they also thought that his entire “Romney has investments in Fannie and Freddie” approach was stupid. There were a lot of remarks like, “I’ve probably got that stuff in my 401K, too! What are you thinking of, Newt?” (only they said it a bit more colorfully).
Gingrich may think he has a good line of attack on Romney re Fannie and Freddie, as with Bain. He probably thinks he won the Bain battle (although I’m not so sure). But I don’t think he’ll win this one, and not just because he himself is invested in Fannie and Freddie and doesn’t seem aware of it (although that made Romney’s team look sharp and Gingrich look very foolish, and Newt’s only real defense seemed to be that he’s got less money in there than Romney does).
The larger point is that when Newt attacks from the left it undermines his claim to have impeccable conservative credentials, and puts Romney in the position of defending the conservative point of view. It may not hurt Newt with his most fervent supporters, perhaps, who are willing to overlook a few slip-ups in the heat of battle, because they believe they know his heart is in the right—and conservative—place, and has been for a long time. I’m speaking of the other voters who are looking at the candidates and trying to evaluate them in the here and now.