Gingrich and Romney Hang in, But Paul Falls

Thursday night’s Fox News Republican presidential debate marked the official end of the 2012 campaign’s pre-season. The opening night kickoff is January 3rd at the Iowa caucuses.

The debate, extremely well moderated by a smart, well-prepared team of Fox News anchors and reporters, helped some candidates and hurt others. Now, as Christmas and New Year’s loom, voters are likely to shut down, their impressions solidified by Thursday’s debate.

That’s probably good news for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had another solid debate and actually tackled the most serious charges against him—flip-flopping—more deeply than before. In brief, he said he was always pro-life and pro-gun, but had to compromise with Democrats who dominated the state legislature.

Maybe a bit too “nuanced,” shall we say, but not entirely unconvincing. Republican pollster Frank Luntz said applause for Romney’s answers got louder as the evening went on. Romney now looks prepared for the onslaught of interviews he begins with Chris Wallace on Sunday.

Candidates at Fox News Republican Presidential Debate in Iowa. Photo: Fox News.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was at his best and his worst. He did really well, at least in Republican voters’ eyes, attacking the Obama Administration’s delay of the Keystone pipeline project. And he did get strong applause for his criticisms of the judiciary, a standard conservative whipping boy.

Yet two former attorneys general under President George W. Bush blasted Gingrich’s idea to let Congress subpoena federal judges to “explain their constitutional reasoning” for their decisions. They called the idea “troubling” and “dangerous.” I couldn’t agree more.

And his worst moments came when he was under withering attack from Rep. Michele Bachmann on his relationship with Freddie Mac. Gingrich took $1.6 million from the government-sponsored enterprise (GSE), which Republicans blame for the financial crisis. Bachmann pressed him repeatedly on this issue, and his answer—that he was a consultant, not a lobbyist, for Freddie—just didn’t wash.

Bachmann also went on the attack against Rep. Ron Paul, who is well organized in Iowa and has been climbing in the polls. But Bachmann exposed Paul’s naïve views on Iran’s nuclear program, which verges on pacifism. He did say we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of Iraq, which makes a lot of sense, but he simply brushed off any threat Iran might pose.

So, the debate really set the terms for the upcoming campaign. Gingrich emerged as a fighter, but one who was part of the corrupt Washington establishment. Romney looked like a solid citizen with a murky past, who began to shed some light on it. And Paul came across as a man who wanted to take America back to 1912—before the income tax, the Federal Reserve, and World War I. I think that’s a bit much even for GOP primary voters to stomach.

Meanwhile, Bachmann probably picked up a few votes, former Sen. Rick Santorum solidified his place as a social conservatives’ favorite, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry didn’t damage himself, so the pundits called it a victory, a very low standard indeed. And former Utah Gov.  Jon Huntsman? Another decent outing, but he left the audience cold.

So, now it’s on to Iowa. Are you ready for some football?

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