Heilemann: Gingrich Disciplined, Aggressive, Triumphant at Iowa Debate

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Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich reacts during the ABC News GOP Presidential debate.
This is what a frontrunner looks like. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A few hours before last night's big Republican debate, Newt Gingrich paid a visit to his newly opened, and still largely empty, Iowa campaign headquarters just outside Des Moines in Urbandale. The event was haphazard, something of a shambles, but it had an energy notably lacking at those of Gingrich's rivals for the GOP presidential nomination — including Mitt Romney, whose appearance at his own HQ earlier in the day was considerably more staid and sparsely attended.

A couple hundred people were crammed into the Gingrich space, and at the end of his brief remarks, the former House speaker observed that they might have noticed in previous debates his routine of scribbling notes immediately upon assuming his place at the podium. Those notes, he explained, consisted of three bullet points: the word "Lincoln," which Gingrich said was a reminder to speak slowly, as Honest Abe did; the word "smile," which Gingrich claimed was the advice of one his two "debate coaches" — i.e., his grandchildren, one of whom apparently believes that his often-scowling, Old Testament countenance doesn't well serve his cause; and the word "simple," a reflection of  the concerns of the other grandtyke, whom Newt told us regards his tendency toward the prolix and "professorial" to be less than politically optimal. No dummies, those kids.

In the event, with the stage lights bright and the cameras live and ABC broadcasting the debate from the campus of Drake University, Gingrich did a decent job of hewing to those guidelines. He maintained an even pace, he snarled rarely, and he left it to Ron Paul to offer a learned disquisition on the Ottoman Empire and its relationship to the provenance of the Palestinian people (whom Gingrich, for the record, continued to insist are an "invented" fiction).

But all of that was only a small part of why Gingrich emerged triumphant, the clear winner, in one of two crucial remaining debates before Iowan Republicans cast their votes on January 3. At the risk of sounding like Mitt Romney, who last night tried to proffer a seven-point answer — within the one minute allocated to his response — to a query about job creation, let me offer five bigger justifications for that judgment:

1. Because debate performances should be graded, first and foremost, on whether they increase or decrease the likelihood of the candidate becoming the Republican nominee — and on that score, Gingrich clearly helped himself more than anyone. Why? Because he walked out onstage the new front-runner, and thus the target of all his rivals, and then walked off the stage at the end of the night still the front-runner, with nary a dent having been inflicted to his momentum.

2. Because he landed the single best punch of the night, which, fortuitously, happened to be on Romney's jaw. After the former Massachusetts governor tried to claim that the "real distinction" between him and Gingrich was that Romney had "spent his life in the private sector," Newt shot back: "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994." This was not only sharp, funny, and palatably mean, but also had the cardinal virtue of being perfectly true. (Indeed, it's amazed me for months that no one has called Romney on this canard until now.)

3. Because, conversely, Romney failed to land a punch on Gingrich. One of his best chances came early in the debate when George Stephanopoulos urged him — begged him, really — to enumerate the differences between the two men. Romney cited Gingrich's desire to have "a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon," to "eliminate in some case the child labor laws so that kids could clean schools," and to "remove capital gains [taxes]" even for people with the highest incomes." Fair points, all. But does anyone see a game-changer in there? I think not.

4. Because Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry — both of whom, for what it's worth, turned in their strongest debate performances in a long while — lent Gingrich a hand at critical junctures rather than piling on him. In Bachmann's case, it came when she decided to introduce the coinage "Newt/Romney" as the focus of her attacks, a dual-pronged approach that must have sounded oh-so-clever in prep sessions but had the effect of blunting the impact on either of its intended targets. In Perry's case, it was when the Texas governor, at a moment when Romney was getting the better of Gingrich on the question of his intemperate comments about the Palestinians, came to the latter's defense, in effect, by changing the subject to President Obama's Middle East policy: "This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said."

5. Because Gingrich, after suffering the televised water torture of listening to each of his rivals in succession and with varying degrees of self-righteousness discuss the virtues of marital fidelity, effectively put the matter of his own indiscretions to rest with a humble-sounding appeal to voters to place stock in his tale of penance and redemption. It wasn't new, and you may consider it the purest bullshit. But it was delivered well, with a lowered voice and an absence of defensiveness. And, as Maggie Haberman put in Politico, "the fact that he said he welcomes such questions ... may make it harder for his rivals — most notably Romney — to continue pressing the issue, because, once the question has been asked and answered that way, voters may start to tire of it being raised at all." The Romney forces would — and, in the spin room afterward, did — take issue with much of the above. They believe that their guy, once again, came across as the only plausible president on the stage. That Gingrich left the impression, as Romney's chief strategist Stuart Stevens put it to me, of being "the guy you'd least like to ever be stuck sitting next to on an airplane." And that, no matter how deft Gingrich's answer regarding his serial infidelities, voters still recoil from the idea of having someone in the White House about whom such sordid questions can be raised at all.

And, hey, who knows, Romney's men may be right. Or Gingrich may set his own hair on fire in the three weeks before the caucuses. Or his lack of anything remotely resembling a credible Iowa organization may come back to bite him.

But last night, Romney was in a different place than he has been before in any debate. Before, he occupied a penthouse several stories above the rest of the field; now, he's been expelled and sent to a lower floor, where his neighbors are Paul, Bachmann, and Perry, and his room is crappy and lacks a view. The only way he'll be able to move back upstairs is if he boots out the newly installed, barrel-bellied, and helmet-haired tenant. But at Drake, that didn't happen — and the time for serving Gingrich an eviction notice is running terribly short.