For the first time in this string of debates, Mitt Romney emerged the clear winner, and not by default. He crushed Newt Gingrich to the point where the former speaker at one point offered a truce in the tit for tat over their finances. A smiling Romney didn’t let up. Gingrich looked worn and tired, no doubt feeling the weight of the entire Republican establishment turning its firepower on him. He was on the defensive at every turn, starting with the immigration issue, where he stood by his assertion that Romney is “the most anti-immigration candidate.” An indignant Romney called on Gingrich to apologize for the “highly charged epithet,” and so the evening went.
Just when it looked like same old, same old, the two combatants unveiled new opposition research on the other’s investments. “This is fun,” Romney said as an aside, as Gingrich ticked off investments Romney made in the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Ready for what was coming, Romney pointed out that Gingrich also owns mutual funds that make investments in these government entities. Gingrich protested, saying it’s “like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant.”
Gingrich couldn’t turn an attack on moderator Wolf Blitzer for a “nonsense question” to his advantage the way he had in earlier debates. Asked whether he was comfortable with the amount of information revealed by Romney’s tax returns, Gingrich at first demurred, declining to repeat charges he’d made on a radio show. Prodded by Romney, who wanted the combat, Gingrich said he “didn’t know of any other president who had a Swiss bank account.” That triggered what by now is Romney’s well-honed tribute to capitalism and some new math where he adds his charitable contributions to his federal taxes and comes up with 40 percent.
He still wasn’t done with Gingrich, ridiculing him for wanting to build a civilization on the moon, using mainly private money. If a business executive came to him and proposed “a few hundred million dollars” for such a venture, “I’d say you’re fired. It may be a big idea but it’s not a good idea,” Romney declared with a smile that grew more self-satisfied with each exchange. By the end of the evening, Gingrich was almost sounding like President Obama in defending things like doubling the National Institutes of Health budget that only government can do. “You don’t have to be cheap everywhere,” he said. “You can have priorities and get things done.” It was a different kind of message from the speaker, less red meat, more nuance—and Romney pounced as if his candidacy were on the line. It’s too early to pronounce Romney the comeback kid, but he did himself a lot of good Thursday night.