Republican candidates did their best to derail an ascendant Newt Gingrich in last night’s Iowa debate, but the former House speaker defended himself against charges of insider cronyism and showed why his debating skills have convinced many conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries that he will be the best candidate to take on President Barack Obama in next year’s election.
Gingrich opened the two-hour debate in Iowa with a strong response to criticism that he lacked the temperament, conservative consistency and electability to lead his party against President Obama in 2012, making it clear that he viewed himself as a leader in the mold of Ronald Reagan.
“I’ve been around long enough that I remember at this exact time in 1979 that Ronald Reagan was running 30 points behind Jimmy Carter,” he said., “And if people said, ‘Gosh, electability is the number one issue, they wouldn’t have nominated him. What they said was, he believes what he’s talking about, he has big solutions, he can get the economy growing, he understands foreign policy, and he’s the person I want to debate Jimmy Carter.”
When questioned about accepting a $1.6 million consulting contract from Freddie Mac, one of the government sponsored housing firms that required a massive bailout in the wake of the financial crisis, Gingrich turned accusations of insider dealing and lobbying into a vigorous defense of home ownership. “I’m not going to step back from the goal of having as many Americans as possible have the skills to buy a home,” he said.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the favorite of anti-war libertarians and running second in the polls, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who still has some Tea Party backing, pressed the attack. But Gingrich made a direct appeal to Iowa voters by likening the role of government-sponsored entities in the housing industry to some of the key institutions that have always played a role in agricultural state communities. “Credit unions, co-ops, a lot of government sponsored enterprises do a lot of good,” he said.
Bachmann did not let Gingrich off the hook when he said he earned the $1.6 million for providing the lender strategic advice as “a private citizen engaged in a business like any other business.” Bachmann said, “I am shocked listening to the former speaker of the House because he is defending the continuing practice of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” Bachmann said.
The other leading candidates also had good, gaffe-free performances. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stuck to his basic campaign theme that America needs a businessman in the White House. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has a huge campaign war chest, proved he is learning to be a better. He got off the best line of the night by comparing himself to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose come-from-behind heroics and religious convictions have captured the imaginations of the nation’s football fans. “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses,” he said.
But the night belonged to Gingrich, who emphasized his leadership qualities and flexibility even as he defended his conservative credentials. He claimed a 90 percent positive scorecard from the American Conservative Union and a 98.5 percent positive voting record from Right-To-Life.
“It’s sort of laughable that someone who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp and has a 30 year record is somehow not conservative,” Gingrich said. “I do change when conditions change (because) I strive for very large changes.”
The only serious blows against the frontrunner came late in the two-hour debate, when Bachmann attacked Gingrich about having supported what she called partial-birth abortions. Gingrich visibly bristled, and accused Bachmann of misrepresenting his position. When he explained his position as not wanting to attack people from the Republican Party because of their stance on this issue, the audience broke into applause.
Ron Paul remains the second leading candidate in most Iowa polls, and he continued to put distance between himself and the other candidates on foreign policy issues. When asked about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Paul said, “There’s no United Nations evidence of that happening. It’s no different than it was in 2003. It’s another Iraq coming. There’s war propaganda going on. To me the greatest danger is that we will have a president who will overreact and we will soon bomb Iran,” he said.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Rick Santorum said the U.S. should immediately begin planning to bomb Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities and tell them “if they will not close them down, we will close them down for you.” Bachmann said, “I don’t think I ever heard a more dangerous position for American security.”
Romney, in response to the same question, dodged the Iran issue, but blasted the president for saying “pretty please” to make Iran return the recently downed drone spy plane. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said.
He also pledged a major military buildup despite the budgetary pressures being faced by the U.S. “This is a president who believes this century is a post-American century. He’s wrong. America has to lead the free world and the free world has to lead the entire world. Obama wants to shrink our military. We should rebuild our Navy and go from 9 ships to 15,” Romney said.