Paul Begala: Newt Obliterates the Competition in Saturday’s Debate

Newt came into the debate the frontrunner, and that’s how he left it—with Romney left in the dust, says Paul Begala. Plus, Eleanor Clift, Rich Galen, and more contributors weigh in.

A frontrunner has to live by the Hippocratic Oath: first do no harm. But Newt Gingrich has never lived by conventional rules. He won the ABC News debate in Iowa not by rising above the attacks, as Mitt Romney did when he was leading the pack. Instead, renegade Newt threw haymakers at also-rans like Michele Bachmann, but was still smart and agile enough to come out ahead.The money shot was when Rick Perry launched a frontal attack on Gingrich's well-reported marital infidelity. Newt retreated immediately to his age (68, suggesting he's too old to cat around any more) and his (latest) religion. Most important, he didn't seem at all flustered. Of course, he has known this was coming for the last two marriages.

Gingrich obliterated Romney's strongest attack—that Gingrich is a career politician—by wryly noting that Romney would have been a career politician had he not lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994. It was an effective, even devastating, response. And it is undeniably true. Mitt is such a phony—and for him to claim his 17 years as a politician doesn't make him a career politician is not only phony; it is stupid. Gingrich coolly deflated Romney's gaseous claim.

Mitt Romney, who has gotten better with almost every debate, just didn't have his mojo tonight. His engineers carefully sculpted his hair before attaching it to his animatronic head—making it more perfect than his previous 'do, which had precisely 68.7 strands of hair strategically out of place.

Exasperated by Gingrich's claim that the Palestinians are "an invented people," Romney unleashed another of his patented canned lines: "I'm not a bomb-thrower, rhetorically or literally." But what if the GOP base wants a bomb-thrower? Romney's play-it-safe strategy, which carried him through the ascent and collapse of Trump, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain, may not be enough to defeat Gingrich. Romney seems to be betting Gingrich will self-destruct. In the last 20+ years, no one has ever lost money betting on a Gingrich self-immolation, so Romney may still win the nomination—but he didn't win this debate.

Speaking of betting, it was a bit creepy to see Romney, a man worth up to $250 million—much of it made from laying off middle-class Americans—offer to bet Perry $10,000 over Romney's health insurance mandate. Romney later did a terrible job of faking middle-class cred, talking about how his parents instilled in him the values of hard work and the appreciation of a dollar. Millionaire Mitt keeps shoving Middle Class Mitt deeper and deeper into the closet. I'm sure Romney's highly paid advisers didn’t come up with the $10,000 bet idea.

Seriously. Normal people bet a six-pack. They bet five bucks. They bet over wearing their rival team's jersey. Who the hell bets $10K? Gingrich, on the other hand, was probably thinking, "Hell, ten grand doesn't buy you much at Tiffany's." But he didn't say it. Romney's $10,000 bet is gonna dog him.

Still, Gingrich went into this debate the frontrunner. I suspect he emerged from it an even stronger frontrunner.