In his first debate Saturday as the polling Republican frontrunner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bore the brunt of the attacks from every contender on the stage on a host of issues. But after two hours of attacks in the forum, co-sponsored by Yahoo News, ABC News and the Des Moines Register, he appeared to escape relatively unscathed.
Prompted at times by ABC News moderators Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, all five of the GOP contenders on stage took shots at Gingrich at some point. But a relaxed and confident Gingrich delivered responses that played out in a way to potentially strengthen his standing among Republicans in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.
Over the course of the night, Gingrich was challenged on his consulting for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, his past support for a government mandate to buy health insurance, his three marriages, a comment he made calling Palestinians an "invented" people, and even a proposal he once floated to build a colony on the moon. But despite the barrage, Gingrich appeared to coast largely above the fray.
After about 15 minutes of tame policy talk, Romney took the first shot when asked if he thought Gingrich was in the best position to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012.
"Well, of course I don't agree with that," Romney said. "I think a lot of people don't agree with that." Romney went on to criticize Gingrich for spending most of his career in Washington, comparing it to his years in the private sector.
"Let's be candid," Gingrich replied. "The only reasons you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994."
"You'd have been a 17-year career politician by now if you'd won," he said.
In what could have been the most devastating portion of the debate for Gingrich, a candidate now married to his third wife, the moderators asked whether someone who had cheated on a spouse could be trusted to run the country. Each candidate was given an opportunity to attack Gingrich on the issue before he could respond.
"If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partners," Perry said. "I think that sends a very powerful message. . . . I think that issue of fidelity is important."
"Trust is everything," added former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who said marriage infidelity should not disqualify a candidate.
When they got to Romney, however, he declined to address Gingrich directly, but he emphasized his 42 years of marriage. Gingrich responded by saying that he has asked God for forgiveness and played up his own grandchildren but said that his past was fair game.
"I think that's a very, very important issue and I think people have to render judgment," Gingrich said. "I'm delighted at the way people have been willing to look at who I am, to look at what my record has been."
Even though most of the criticism was aimed at Gingrich, Romney will likely suffer the most from the contest. During a brief argument with Rick Perry, Romney challenged the Texas governor to a $10,000 bet that he never supported a national individual mandate to purchase health insurance in his book No Apology, as Perry accused. Expect to see that clip played repeatedly over the course of the campaign.
If Saturday's Republican presidential debate was the weathervane that would signal whether the Republican primary race would go negative in the days before the first caucuses and primaries, we're in for quite the slog.
Since Republican support for businessman Herman Cain began to slide--he dropped out of the race last weekend--Gingrich has replaced him as the the latest "anti-Mitt Romney" candidate. And based on the response from Romney's campaign this week, it is clear that Boston is taking Gingrich's rise seriously. Romney this week launched his very own blitzkrieg against Gingrich, deploying the many surrogates who have endorsed him to nail him at several angles. The campaign also released a bruising anti-Gingrich web video that reminded voters of the time he criticized the entitlement reform plan put forth by Republican Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and passed by the House GOP, calling it "right-wing social engineering."
Gingrich on Friday struck back, accusing Romney of "running to the left of Teddy Kennedy" when he ran for Senate in 1994. In those comments, Gingrich suggested that Romney is a politician who is only a conservative when it's convenient, a criticism that has been ruthlessly lobbed at the former governor for years. Later that day, Gingrich's team in Iowa blasted Romney for launching the latest attacks on Gingrich, calling the effort "a load of crap."
"What we're seeing from Mitt Romney is desperation and panic and I think that's going to be very frustrating to people who want to move forward," said Gingrich Iowa co-chairwoman Linda Upmeyer. "They don't want to see $3 million of attack ads. It's a bad way to go and he ought to reconsider that tactic. Because Iowans, we're not stupid people and we understand a load of crap when we see it. That isn't what wins you caucuses or elections here in Iowa."
Gingrich told Yahoo News in a recent interview that of all the lessons he had learned about himself while running for president of the United States, he was most surprised in his ability to resist the temptation to attack his fellow candidates. Throughout the campaign, Gingrich has made a point to deflect questions about other candidates, choosing to keep criticism narrowly focused on President Barack Obama or the media.
"I may be more capable of calm discipline than I would have guessed," Gingrich said in a Yahoo News interview in November. "Watch the way in which I am methodically not getting engaged in a fight with my friends."