Newt Leads GOP Out of Debate Wilderness

SIOUX CITY, Iowa – This was the debate that Republicans had been waiting for.

After more than seven months of acidic, divisive confrontations with answers that were long on bluster and sloganeering and short on substance, an ensemble cast of GOP presidential contenders turned in a performance that was thoughtful, humane and substantive.

That is Newt Gingrich’s doing. The old professor had been teaching a course on how to debate effectively, but his pupils didn’t catch on until the final class before exams.

The Gingrich method is to praise one’s fellow Republicans, use humor, speak substantively and save the really rough stuff for Barack Obama. With the exception of a couple testy exchanges, the candidates were respectful of each other and, by offering their most thoughtful answers yet, respectful of the audience.

Debates to this point have been dominated by gaffes, bickering among frontrunners, complaints about format and rigid adherence to talking points. But with the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away and, having seen how Gingrich has benefited from employing his own techniques, the rest of the field was ready to step it up.

Instead of another evening in which Republicans had to watch a debate as if it were a slasher movie, peeking between splayed fingers and dreading the next stabbing, GOPers finally could feel like they had a field of which they could be proud.

Prior to the debate, the crowd has been jittery, murmuring like a courtroom gallery at a murder trial. But afterward, it was all smiles and excited chatter. They had finally seen in their would-be champions something presidential. Something bigger than the petty concerns of today’s polls or the latest opposition research dump.

While Power Play acknowledges its extreme bias on this point, much of the new tone also resulted from the decency and thoughtfulness of the questions posed by the moderator and panelists. But there was a new maturity among the contenders.

While the attack ads and junk mail saturation bombing will resume and the campaigns will return to sniping and bracketing, whispering and subtly smearing, the candidates themselves all rose to the moment and offered compelling closing arguments.

Iowans will now turn their focus to Christmas, family and football, but the Republicans all gave them something to mull over until the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Specifically:

Mitt Romney

“The spy drone being brought down, he says pretty please? A foreign policy based on pretty please? You have got to be kidding.”

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate.

Romney is Gingrich’s star pupil. On a night when everyone expected him to continue his relentless attacks on Gingrich, Romney amazed and stayed positive.

There was none of the whiff of desperation or meanness that had gathered around Romney since Gingrich’s rise to the top of the field. And in doing so, he managed to look perfectly presidential.

In previous debates, his attacks were often heavy-handed and his defenses too snappish and brusque. This was a man in command and the crowd liked it. If Romney is smart, he’ll drop the rough stuff and the fake laughter at his opponents’ attacks for good.

Newt Gingrich

“You know, Neil, I sometimes get accused of using language that's too strong, so I've been standing here editing… I'm very concerned about not appearing to be zany.”

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate.

Gingrich made the audience in the hall and at home part of the show by winking at his own weaknesses. Would he keep his cool under fire? Could he resist pomposity as the frontrunner? Would he go overboard in his attacks?

Gingrich managed to succeed on all fronts, bringing the same method he has been employing for months to the fore. But Gingrich added something too: he sounded presidential.

He took some bad blows about his work as a Washington consultant, but he also soared when he talked about American exceptionalism and his views on entitlement reform, he managed to seem grand without being grandiose.

Gingrich’s performance may quell some of the anxieties over his constancy and temperament. The doubts may eventually do him in with conservatives, but it won’t be because he couldn’t answer the charge and shift the discussion when confronted.

Rick Perry

“Cut their pay in half. Cut their time in Washington in half. Cut their staff in half. Send them home. Let them get a job like everybody else back home has and live within the laws of which they passed.”

-- Texas Gov. Rick Perry Huntsman at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate talking about his plan to overhaul Congress.

Seldom is a line so perfect for a candidate or a moment as Rick Perry’s embrace of Tim Tebow. It may have sounded corny, but it worked because it was so true.

They’re both evangelical Christians derided as rubes who can’t play on the next level. They’ve both become punch lines for late-night comics and earned the smirking derision of sophisticates.

But the conservative Christians who dominate the Republican Party love Tim Tebow and admire him all the more for winning when everyone said he couldn’t. The fact that Tebow is a pro-life hero for the ad he cut talking about his mother’s decision to reject medical advice for an abortion when she was carrying him doesn’t hurt either.

Perry was really on his game, and while he didn’t match up with the presidential poses of Romney and Gingrich, he certainly sounded plausible. And by making himself the lovable underdog, Perry may have bought himself another look from Republican voters who themselves often feel picked on and discounted by the establishment media.

Perry also was strong on selling his Washington overhaul plan and the claim of his status as an outsider, lines that got a lot of applause and a lot of head nods in the debate hall.

Ron Paul

“Well, he has a different definition of the private sector than I have.”

-- Texas Rep. Ron Paul at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate on Newt Gingrich’s defense of $1.6 million or more in contracts with bailed out government-backed mortgage firm Freddie Mac

Paul really bit into Gingrich’s hide on Freddie Mac, reinforcing an argument many conservatives are starting to make: that the former speaker is too much a part of the Washington establishment to be able to uproot it.

But Paul also suffered a grave wound himself when he very clearly and very consistently explained his policy of rapprochement with Iran. It’s just too big a jump for a Republican electorate that sees Iran as a very real threat and sees nothing wrong with the U.S. spying on the Mullahs of Tehran.

Bret Baier gave Paul lots of time to explain his views. Unfortunately for his chances to win the Iowa caucuses, Paul fully availed himself of it.

Michele Bachmann

“I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul.”

-- Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate talking about Paul’s Iran policy.

Bachmann revived herself from previously flat debate performances, rediscovering some of the passion that had made her appealing to Iowa conservatives once before.

She also impressed with her ability to talk extemporaneously about a host of topics and dropped some of the repetitive lines of previous debates that had become shopworn.

But Bachmann is Gingrich’s poorest pupil in the art of debating. Her attacks continue to be too harsh in and too Manichean in their orientation.

Republicans now know that they will have an imperfect nominee, as is inevitable to some degree for every party in every election. Bachmann’s absolutist arguments sound less relevant in that environment.

Jon Huntsman

“This nation has been downgraded. This nation is on the cusp of the third government shutdown. We have been kicked around as people. We are getting screwed as Americans.”

-- Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate.

Mitt Romney had better get back to New Hampshire in a hurry, because the Jon Huntsman who showed up on Thursday night could cause big trouble for him in the Granite State.

Huntsman, whose previous performances were uneven and unpleasantly bitter, sounded steady, intelligent and conservative. Rather than mocking the views of the very party he seeks to lead, Huntsman spoke as one of them.

And his line about “getting screwed” was topped only by Perry’s Tebowing as the sound bite of the night.

Rick Santorum

“We need someone who's strong in their political and personal life to go out and contrast themselves with the president and make him the issue in this campaign.”

-- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at the FOX News/Republican Party of Iowa presidential debate juxtaposing himself with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Republicans are in the market for a happy warrior this cycle, not an angry one, but they surely must admire Rick Santorum’s dedication and devotion.

Santorum is making some moves in Iowa – new commercials and a big door-to-door push -- and may find his way into the top four come caucus day. His debate performance was entirely about that effort as he spoke directly to his small, devoted group of supporters about the issues that matter to them in local terms.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

 

 

 

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.