Newt Gingrich Barely Singed In GOP Debate

Newt faced some flamethrowers, but barely got singed in the GOP’s Sioux City debate. By Eleanor Clift

Chris Carlson / AP Photo

Newt Gingrich was on the griddle for much of the evening, easily defending his ideas and deflecting criticism. He got singed only once when Michele Bachmann accused him of taking money from Freddie Mac “to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going.” Otherwise, he took the lead on every issue, hitting the sweet spot on issues closest to the heart of today’s conservatives: liberal judges who rule for gay marriage and against God, and a perceived weakness by President Obama in confronting Iran.

Gingrich wants to subpoena judges to testify before Congress, a proposal that two conservative former attorney generals called “dangerous, outrageous and totally irresponsible.” Gingrich fell back on his now standard line that “as an historian,” he understands these issues, in this case better than lawyers. Ron Paul stood out as the voice of reason on this one, saying that Gingrich’s plan would “open up a whole can of worms” and be a “real affront to the separation of powers.”

Paul served as a convenient foil for the candidates as he questioned the war drums beating against Iran. Romney assailed President Obama for his “timidity and weakness” and for saying “pretty please” to the Iranians to return the drone that was downed on their soil. Paul was the odd man out when it came to his party’s apparent thirst for confrontation with Iran, and tellingly, at the very beginning of the two-hour debate in Iowa, he was asked if he would pledge to support the eventual nominee. He didn’t say yes; instead he promised to cut one trillion from the federal budget in his first year as president.

Gingrich turned his early criticism of the Ryan budget as “right-wing social engineering” into an encomium to bipartisanship, praising Rep. Paul Ryan for working with “a very brave Democrat,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, on Medicare reform. “I’m not in the business of blaming Governor Romney,” Gingrich said, declining to start a fight over the Ryan plan and insisting that he meant only that, “A free society should make very big decisions with the support of the people.”

Then, in an oblique way, he took a shot at Romney, saying he was “editing himself,” that he’s been accused of using language that’s too strong, and didn’t want to appear "zany,” a word that Romney has used to describe him. He then unloaded a full Gingrich on Obama, saying it was “utterly irrational to protect left-wing extremists in San Francisco” while killing jobs by withholding approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is at the center of the current standoff between the White House and Congress.

Gingrich repeatedly questioned Bachmann’s facts, and she responded with controlled fury that she was right on everything from Freddie Mac to Gingrich’s supposed inconsistency on his opposition to abortion, prompting the former speaker to promise that as president he would defund Planned Parenthood.

Romney got a good going over on his shifting positions on abortion rights, but otherwise seemed pleased with the evening, saying he would hear every attack leveled at him “a hundred times” more from Obama.