Rattled by Newt Gingrich’s ascent in the polls, Mitt Romney abandoned his above-the-fray strategy at a primetime Republican debate in Iowa Saturday evening, grabbing every chance he could to assail Gingrich. Asked to name their differences, he said first of all he wasn’t a career politician, and then he ticked off the former speaker’s support for ideas that seem outlandish, like a lunar colony and eliminating child-labor laws.
Smiling through Romney’s bill of particulars, Gingrich noted that Romney would have been a 17-year career politician if he’d won his race against Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Then he defended the idea of America being in space along with giving poor kids the same opportunities for work that middle-class kids have. He showed his ability to deflect attacks, foreshadowing a primary contest that could come down to Romney with his carefully controlled responses against the freewheeling killer intellect that is Gingrich.
“I’m not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally,” Romney declared, promising sobriety and stability in dealing with the Middle East and assailing Gingrich for criticizing the goal of a Palestinian state, which has been the basis of U.S. policy for at least the last three presidents. Romney said Gingrich’s incendiary words make it harder for Israel, Gingrich said he was “speaking as an historian” in questioning Palestinian claims, noting that he has known Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu since 1984, and they are friends. Romney countered that he’s known Bibi for a long time too, and the last thing he needs is an historian who creates “tumult in his neighborhood.” Gingrich’s views line up nicely with those of evangelical Christians, who make up more than half of Iowa voters.
Gingrich turned in the strongest performance, refusing to back down from any of his comments but keeping his cool. He brushed aside Ron Paul’s assertion that he may have taken taxpayer money in representing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “It’s called free enterprise,” Gingrich retorted. And in a section on family values where the candidates were asked if marital fidelity should be a factor in choosing a president, Gingrich said, “It’s a real issue,” and that people have to render judgment. He asked voters to “measure who I am now,” which is a 68-year-old grandfather, and the biggest threat so far to Romney’s carefully planned path to the nomination.