Michael Tomasky: Newt Toys With the Competition in the Fox Debate

Newt was supposed to take a beating tonight. But he didn’t. Instead, says Michael Tomasky, he showed how to turn a weakness into a strength—and make Romney look like John Kerry.

12.16.11 4:15 AM ET

Was this supposed to be the night that the others dinged Newt Gingrich, took him down a peg, precipitated his downfall? Well, it wasn’t. Gingrich knows how to do this.

His best moment, and the best moment of the debate, came in the second hour when Gingrich talked about the Keystone pipeline proposal. He talked about the merits of the proposal as he sees them, but his answer was really about cleverly and preemptively dealing with the storyline that he’s “zany” and intemperate and therefore unelectable. It was a textbook example of how you take one of your own weaknesses and in 30 or so seconds show people that you’re aware of it and there’s another way to look at it. And it was the second time that Gingrich did it tonight—the first was right at the beginning, when he went on that riff about how Ronald Reagan was 30 points behind Jimmy Carter at this same point in 1979.

Contrast those moments with Mitt Romney’s defense of the liberal aspects of his record. It was just a bunch of words—a plate of cold mashed potatoes. Romney tries to persuade on the level of factual truth. Gingrich goes straight for emotional truth. This is a way, come to think of it, in which Romney is like a Democrat. It’s very Al Gore, or John Kerry, that style. It doesn’t break through. Gingrich breaks through. His answer to Megyn Kelly on judges was powerful. Michele Bachmann may have landed the best punch on him of the night, on the unexpected issue of partial-birth abortion; we’ll see how that plays in the next few days. But she’s not the best messenger at this point.

I don’t know which polls to believe about whether Gingrich is holding steady or tanking in Iowa. And I think he’s almost completely unelectable in general. But on a stage, he comes close to toying with the competition.