Newt Gingrich, Under Fire, Plays Clumsy Defense in Fox News Iowa Debate

Gingrich had an off night as he chafed under criticism, while Romney threw no punches. Howard Kurtz scores the Fox debate.

Eric Gay / AP Photo

Newt Gingrich sounded downright defensive at the Fox debate, insisting, in I-am-not-a-crook fashion, that he had never changed a position for money.

It was his worst moment in the presidential debates so far as Gingrich tried to explain away his $1.6 million in payments from Freddie Mac. And it came despite the fact that his major rival, Mitt Romney, didn’t take a swipe at him.

The Sioux City faceoff made clear that Gingrich is the man to beat in Iowa. But after a string of sure-footed performances, he didn’t help himself on Thursday night.For one thing, he was punching down, politically speaking, by responding to criticism from single-digit Michele Bachmann, at one point accusing her of making “wild allegations” that are “factually not true.” For another, his insistence that he was just a “private citizen” ducked the issue of his past denunciations of Freddie and Fannie.

What’s more, Gingrich’s pomposity streak returned: Asked by Megyn Kelly about criticism by conservative ex-attorneys general over his proposal to subpoena judges over their decisions, Gingrich said they should read Jefferson—suggesting he is far more learned than they are. He also declared that “I” balanced the budget for four years, omitting the fact that he had help from Bill Clinton and the rest of Congress.

Romney made no errors and seemed to be engaged in a nonaggression pact against Gingrich—perhaps mindful that Iowans dislike negative campaigning. He pivoted from past Gingrich criticism that he caused mass layoffs at Bain Capital to saying Barack Obama might make the same complaint because the president didn’t know anything about the real economy. He said he had learned from his mistakes—failing to invest in Jet Blue—as well as his successes.

Romney’s worst moment was when Chris Wallace pressed him on flip-flopping from his Massachusetts days. While he forthrightly said he had “changed my mind” on abortion, his attempts to explain away comments about getting to Ted Kennedy’s left on gay rights sounded lame.

There was a bit of subtle repositioning in what has been a red-meat primary. Romney boasted that he’d successfully negotiated with Massachusetts Democrats while he was governor. Gingrich countered that he’d done business with Bill Clinton. Is bipartisanship no longer a dirty word? Plus, Newt praised Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and said he’d worked with Habitat for Humanity—a Jimmy Carter program! He made only a brief, humorous reference to Mitt having called him “zany.” Perhaps he’s trying to seem reasonable?

Among the other candidates, Bachmann was the most aggressive, denouncing Ron Paul for his pacifist foreign policy and slamming Gingrich on abortion (and overreaching by trying to portray him as a squish). Rick Santorum, also prospecting for social conservative votes, hit Romney for allowing a Massachusetts court to impose gay marriage (though legally there’s nothing the governor could have done). Ron Paul was Ron Paul, and will do well in Iowa, where he’s well organized. Jon Huntsman had some good moments but has put all his chips on New Hampshire. Rick Perry was practically invisible.

It was not a game-changing event by any means. The only real question is whether Gingrich, whose lead in the polls has dipped in recent days, can be stopped in Iowa before the Jan. 3 caucuses. Or whether he stops himself.