Frontrunner Newt Gingrich was on the defensive — again — as the Republican candidates made their closing appeals to voters in the last debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses officially launch primary season (and inevitably weed out a candidate or two). Gingrich fended off competitors' claims that he's an unreliable conservative, calling them "laughable," and defended his consulting work for Fannie Mae. His chief rival, Mitt Romney, tried to stay above the fray and focus his attacks on President Obama. Who came out best in Sioux City's "make-or-break" debate? Here, a consensus list of the winners and losers:
Among the three candidates with any chance of winning Iowa, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway, "the one that seemed to mostly dodge the fire this time around was Mitt Romney." He took the usual hits on the Massachusetts health care law and his history at Bain Capital, but he wasn't attacked nearly as aggressively as his chief rival Gingrich. "This may end up benefiting Romney in the long run since it seemed, once again, like he was the cool, calm guy standing above the fray while all the other candidates fought amongst themselves."
The Tea Party favorite has tumbled since winning the Iowa straw poll in August, says Shawna Shepherd at CNN, but Bachmann held her own this time. She "had the sharpest attack lines" against Gingrich, saying he has made money through "influence-peddling," even if he's not technically a lobbyist. And she drew applause by calling Ron Paul's anti-war Iran policy the most "dangerous answer for American security" she's ever heard. Bachmann came off as a "true-blue conservative," says William Kristol in The Weekly Standard. This performance might be what she needed to start climbing back into the first-tier.
The man to beat "did face criticism," says Kathie Obradovich at the Des Moines Register, "but it wasn't the open season on Gingrich that the Dec. 10 debate featured." The former House speaker "parried attacks for most of the first hour," and "gained back ground he may have lost in the second half." And the debate closed with the moderators handing Gingrich "a sugarplum," by making everyone "defend negative attacks on each other and giving Gingrich a chance to proclaim his positive campaign." Not a bad final impression with which to leave voters before a crucial vote.
The "new Newt" — the cool, unflappable frontrunner — was on display much of the night, says Frank James at NPR. "But there were times when old Newt, the consummate Washington insider or proposer of crazy ideas, made an appearance." In those moments Gingrich did nothing to soothe the conservatives he needs to win the primaries, or the independents he would need in the general election.
Gingrich's most formidable rival in Iowa, according to polls, is Rep. Ron Paul, says Charles Babington at the Associated Press, but the libertarian-leaning Texan did himself no favors in Sioux City. He "expressed his anti-war, anti-interventionist views so vehemently that he may have turned off mainstream Republicans who otherwise might have helped him to a surprising first-place finish."
This was the last chance for GOP primary voters to examine the candidates together, says Dan Balz and Philip Rucker at The Washington Post, but "there was no clear winner Thursday night and no obvious loser." Nobody committed a campaign-sinking gaffe, "and some of the strongest performances were turned in by candidates in the lower tier of the competition." Even Romney, who needs to gain lost ground from Gingrich, refrained from "direct encounters" and aimed his sharpest criticism at Obama. If voters were hoping for a game-changer, they were disappointed.