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12.16.11

Romney Embraces Center-Right Record as Gingrich Firms Up Conservative Cred

In a surprise debate move, Romney embraced his center-right record as Massachusetts governor, offering it as evidence he can forge bipartisan consensus. Gingrich solidified his conservative credentials, while Paul, Huntsman, and Perry all scored some points, says John Avlon.

Mitt Romney’s strange tack in the final Iowa debate was to speak to a New Hampshire and national audience.

For perhaps the first time in this campaign, he unapologetically framed his Massachusetts record as a center-right leader who could achieve bipartisan consensus. He actually began his answer opposing gay marriage by bragging on the fact that he appointed an openly gay person to his cabinet. This isn’t the usual social-conservative pander less than three weeks out from Iowa.

There are a few possible explanations: Mitt might feel liberated by his newfound underdog status; he might be seeing internal polls telling him that Newt’s support is slipping and it’s time to think post-nomination; or he might be trying to compensate for the barrage of negative ads being released against Newt in Iowa right now. Regardless, there was no $10,000-bet moment in this debate.

But don’t write Newt Gingrich out of the narrative. To my eyes and ears, Professor Gingrich had a strong debate. The man can throw red meat but still retain the policy protein. He got huge applause in the hall for pushback answers on the Keystone XL Pipeline, immigration, and judicial reform. Especially on judicial reform—invoking The Federalist Papers, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, this was a gutsy and substantive answer that should be taught in debate classes down the line. He dwelled too long and too defensively on his Freddie Mac Achilles’s heel, but I think Newt solidified his conservative credentials to the audience tonight. Romney barely tried.

Three final points on the second-tier candidates:

There was no $10,000-bet moment in this debate.

Rick Perry’s comparison of himself to Tim Tebow was an inspired bit of association, coming up with a resonant metaphor for his sloppy initial debate performances, still hoping for a Hail Mary pass and fourth-quarter comeback, with God on his side.

Nobody should count out Ron Paul in Iowa. His supporters are intense and growing. This debate, as in others, he turns every question to his core libertarian philosophy, rooted in the Constitution, and tailored to appeal to a primary audience. Judging by the applause in the hall, he seemed to be rewarded for his high-mindedness beyond his hardcore supporters.

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Campaign Chronicles: The Ron Paul Wild Card

Finally, Jon Huntsman—the most reasonable man on stage is in the low single digits in Iowa and hoping for a New Hampshire miracle. He led with a strong opening line about how America is “screwed,” followed by both a diagnosis and prescription on how to unscrew America. Huntsman should be doing better than he is—and that says more about the current conservative populist tone of the GOP than anything else.

Big-Picture Takeaway: More than 50 million people have watched these past 13 GOP presidential debates. Occasionally, they added light as well as heat. And here’s a bonus: the next time the candidates take the stage, it will be after the Iowa caucus and it will be a smaller crowd, as the game of Survivor continues to its mission-critical phase, where substance will be rewarded on the march to the White House.