Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich Knock Heads at the ABC News GOP Debate

Though neither scored a knockout blow, Romney and Gingrich each did some damage at the GOP’s 12th debate last night. John Avlon reports from Iowa on the key exchanges, how Newt managed to look mature—and why Ron Paul shouldn’t be counted out. Plus, more Daily Beast contributors weigh in.

It was a cold night in Iowa with a full moon at the ABC News/Drake debate.

And if Newt Gingrich and George Stephanopoulos had conjured this future 20 years ago, it would have been both a good dream and a nightmare.

Because here was Newt as the newly minted GOP frontrunner in the second decade of the 21st century. And his former nemesis, the Clinton communications director, was asking the questions as the moderator of the pre-caucus Iowa debate.

It came to a head in one epically awkward question, emailed from Yahoo, about the importance of fidelity in the occupant of the oval office. It was asked, left to right, across the stage, bypassing Gingrich, tightening the noose.

And when it was time to answer the question, Newt hit it out of the park, at least given the alternatives.

“It is a real issue,” Newt said honestly and with an admirable lack of spin. “People have to look at the person to whom they are going to loan the presidency...I have said upfront, openly, I have made mistakes at times and had to go to God for forgiving.”

Newt proved he could take the heat of the frontrunner status—providing some evidence of his vaunted new “maturity.”

And he showed he could punch back at Mitt Romney, delivering a strong blow at Romney’s claim to have spent his life working in the private sector: “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.” It was effective because it was true—and truth stands out in the spin-saturated environment.

Overall, Newt and Romney both held their own in this debate, the GOP’s 12th, despite plenty of incoming attacks. Nothing decisively displaced Newt at the head of the pack. Romney showed an uncommon and endearing comfort with his own personal history, freely admitting he wasn’t exactly born in a log cabin, while bringing up his time as a Mormon missionary without prompting.

Ron Paul is too often written out of the horse race narrative by the media, but his local strength has the advantage of four years of snowballing policy vindication. And given the intensity of his supporters and his second place status in many polls, it is a mistake to think he could not pull off an upset and recalibrate the race entirely.

Michele Bachmann’s expression of support for expanding the tax base and expressed concern for paying the payroll tax made me believe that she was in fact supportive of raising taxes—at least on the middle and lower class—while raising real questions about the conservative catechism which says that no tax cuts need to be paid for, ipso facto.

Three weeks from the caucus, Newt, Romney and Paul are in the top tier with Perry and Bachmann clawing to get back in. Time is running out in this pivotal early GOP contest. But the trends are being baked into the cake and the impact of this caucus on the nomination is nothing less than pivotal, two days after New Year’s, kicking off the gauntlet through Florida in January.