I find it hard to judge who did well and who didn’t in this debate because it comes against a backdrop of public opinion that is in deep flux. There was a lot of evidence in the polls over the last couple days that support for Newt Gingrich has peaked and is starting to drop. And Mitt Romney’s unwillingness to attack Newt head-on suggests that his team suspects Newt is already in free-fall. If that’s the case maybe Mitt did well by just playing it safe. We’ll find out more on that front soon enough.
My own sense, just watching the debate unfold, was that Gingrich did pretty well for himself. His answers out of the gate on electability were strong (strong as they can be in the face of overwhelming evidence against him). And he took charge of the debate in the second hour. But there was clearly a period in say the second half hour when he was under relentless assault — particularly the extended exchange with Michele Bachmann on Freddie Mac and influence peddling. That was not good at all for Gingrich. And he seemed to know it. It was the first time in the Gingrich Surge Era when I’ve seen Gingrich really on the defensive.
But coming back in the second half I heard Newt again and again hitting the themes that Republicans live by, the sort of outsize language his support has always been based on. Newt’s opponents are clobbering him on the air with an avalanche of negative ads. He has no money to respond (even with positive ads) or surrogates to defend him. And maybe that’s all that matters. But I still felt like Gingrich did better in this debate than maybe others figure.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.