Newt's 'winning' Iowa debate performance: 5 takeaways

In the first GOP presidential debate since Gingrich became the undisputed frontrunner, his rivals took off their gloves — but no one knocked Newt out

GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich didn't just survive his rivals' attacks during Saturday's big Iowa debate. He thrived, political watchers say.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jeff Haynes)

There were six Republican presidential hopefuls on stage for a critical debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday night. But for most of the political press, the event was a face-off between Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and four candidates who won't win the GOP nomination. With just 24 days left before the Iowa caucuses, many of them holidays, the candidates went after one another with unusual gusto, and not everyone emerged unscathed. Here, five key takeaways from Saturday's ABC News/Des Moines Register debate:

1. Newt was this feisty debate's biggest "piñata"

The Des Moines debate "was a rarity — it lived up to the hype," says Maggie Haberman at Politico. For the first hour, the candidates bludgeoned one another, landing some good blows and "drawing blood." And as the newly-crowned frontrunner, "Gingrich was the obvious piñata." But Newt "thrives on political combat, and he showed why." Newt smiled and shrugged off attacks from Mitt Romney about his temperament and idea to colonize the moon, from Michele Bachmann about being a Washington lobbyist, and from Rick Perry about his multiple infidelities, and he landed plenty of good punches of his own.

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2. And the night's biggest winner

For Republicans "predicting (or hoping) that Gingrich would implode," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post, Saturday night "was not their night." If anything, Newt showed that he's "adjusting nicely to his newfound frontrunner status." Unlike Romney, who tried to stay above the fray when he was frontrunner, Gingrich attacked, says David Weigel at Slate. And he proved he is the best of the lot at dishing it out. Gingrich's promise to GOP voters is that "he will outsmart Barack Obama," and he won the debate by convincing them he could. Plus, tweets CNBC's John Harwood, Newt stayed "calm, on offense and defense." That was the real key to his "winning performance."

3. Mitt Romney had a bad night

When Romney tried attacking Gingrich by calling him a career politician, says Paul Begala at The Daily Beast, Newt "obliterated" him with "an effective, even devastating, response": Mitt would be, too, if he hadn't lost a 1994 Senate race to Teddy Kennedy. Mitt also shot himself in the foot by trying to bet Perry $10,000 over a policy claim. "Seriously. Normal people bet a six-pack. They bet five bucks." Except for out-of-touch millionaires, "who the hell bets $10K?"

4. Bachmann's "Newt Romney" line could hurt both men

All of the B-list candidates had surprisingly good nights, but Bachmann had a particularly effective riff about "Newt Romney," essentially calling both candidates the same "liberal blob" on issues like health care, cap-and-trade, and taxes, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. Neither man liked being lumped with the other, but "this hurts Gingrich more than Romney," says Pete Spiliakos at First Things. It makes Gingrich seem as phony as Romney, undermining the rationale for his lead. No, Romney came out worse, says Todd Graham at CNN. If voters think the two men are the same, and Gingrich is ahead, "why would they vote for Romney? They wouldn't."

5. Gingrich thinks the "invented" Palestinian people are "terrorists"

In an answer with "high risk, and potentially high reward, for Gingrich," the former House speaker stood by his earlier remark that Palestinians are an "invented people" whose nationality didn't exist before 1977, says Politico's Haberman. Then he went further, calling Palestinians "terrorists," and their leaders on par with al Qaeda — earning a rebuke from Romney for being a rhetorical "bomb-thrower." How the GOP reacts to Newt's "obvious and flagrant match thrown on raging gasoline" might well be the race's "make-or-break moment," says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. If the GOP doesn't rebuke Gingrich for his language, he'll probably win the nomination. If Newt is walking this back by Wednesday, "Romney still has a good shot."

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