ABC News, in conjunction with Yahoo! News and The Des Moines Register, sponsored a debate in Des Moines Saturday night, a little more than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Here's our take on the winners and losers from Saturday night.
Newt Gingrich is now clearly the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. Saturday's debate in Iowa was the first one since he has surged in the polls and Gingrich handled it with his usual aplomb. Many expected the debate to be a full-throated attack on the former House speaker, but shots were fired at both Gingrich and Mitt Romney, which helps Gingrich.
His recent surge stemmed in part because of impressive debate performances and he was clearly at ease on the stage Saturday. Many of his answers showed more depth than his rivals, especially his lengthy factual explanation of why he changed his position on a very important issue for voters: the individual mandate to buy health insurance. He also struck Mitt Romney hard in the early part of the debate, telling Romney that the reason he is also not a professional politician is because he lost a 1994 bid to unseat Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. And, perhaps most significantly, the thrice-married Gingrich had as strong an answer on as could be expected. He directly addressed the issue, acknowledging mistakes and said he is older and wiser now.
Paul is making major traction in Iowa and was able to clearly articulate his conservative, libertarian views in Saturday night's debate. Paul was able to get more air time than he has gotten in recent debates. At the end of the debate, when all the candidates were asked to praise something about one of their rivals, Paul was most frequently mentioned, especially for the consistency of his positions and for his sustained criticism of the Federal Reserve. The Texas lawmaker, who is critical of government involvement in any aspect of the economy, especially housing, also slammed Gingrich for taking nearly $2 million from mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac.
Bachmann also did quite well for herself Saturday night, and sought to go after both Gingrich and Romney by calling them "Newt Romney" in a sustained attack for what she called their similarities (Gingrich and Romney both took issue with the characterization). It may be too late for the Minnesota lawmaker. She has essentially bet her entire campaign on winning Iowa, but she has struggled to get out of the lower tier in opinion polls and Gingrich's surge makes it even harder for her to be a top-tier candidate. Saturday was the first debate since businessman Herman Cain dropped out of the race, and Bachmann sought to woo his former supporters but it appeared a bit too transparent and insincere. Not to mention that most of Cain's supporters have already moved on, many even before his officially ended his bid last week.
Romney has been strong in most of the debates until now, though this debate he may have lost for not winning. While most of his answers were adequate, Saturday's debate was about whether Gingrich could take the heat and Gingrich clearly won. On top of that,about what he said in his book about the Massachusetts health care plan and its connection to President Obama's signature legislative achievement. Romney may have won the spat with Perry (who didn't actually bite), but betting that kind of money may have backfired and perpetuated Romney's image as someone who does not have empathy with average voters because of his enormous wealth.
Rick Perry has one of his strongest debate performances to date, but given his prior performances, that is not saying much. Still, Perry needed to deliver some knockout blows to either Romney or Gingrich or both and he didn't. With just 24 days to go before voters start making choices in Iowa, Perry needed more than a personal best. He needed a home run.
The Pennsylvania senator did not commit a faux pas the way Romney did, and Newt Gingrich even praised him at the end for his hawkish views on Iran, but Santorum needs to do more than not embarrass himself. Like the other second tier candidates, he needed to make himself seen as a viable candidate to replace one of the front-runners. And he didn't.
The former Utah governor is so far behind in the polls that he was not even invited to the Iowa debate. Getting kicked offstage is not a way to win a debate -- or an election. If Gingrich clearly won, Huntsman clearly lost.
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