So what just happened?
My basic read is that the debate all happened in the first 20 or 30 minutes. Romney was brutal and totally on message, hitting a series of key attack lines where Gingrich is just extremely vulnerable. But then Newt came back and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite as on his game as his was tonight. He didn’t get a chance to have one of those Newt explosion minutes. But just for rolling with the punches, finding openings to get right back in Mitt’s face and more than anything playing that frontrunner card which must have driven Mitt to distraction. Watching it I remember thinking, wow, this is a sort of an amazing moment just in terms of political theatrics because both of them really brought their A games, both of which are very different things.
By the end of the exchange, Romney started to get under Newt’s skin. There were a few moments where Newt almost seemed speechless. He had that moment when he grabbed on to the lifeline of defending Medicare in Florida, which is actually quite a lifeline. But that whole part of the debate ended just as Newt looked like he might be getting wobbly.
The other big part of the debate is that Brian Williams just played the whole thing so close to the vest and right that he didn’t give Gingrich any opportunity to have a newtplosion. But I’m not quite sure he wanted one. Or rather I get the sense his advisors told him he didn’t need or another or maybe it was time to pass on it. He’s the frontrunner now.
I think Newt helped himself with the concluding remarks. Mitt’s contribution to conservatism is apparently admirably raising a big family and being a successful businessman. Newt’s story, albeit embroidered, is one of a guy who’s been a professional Movement Conservative for almost forty years. In a Republican primary in 2012, I think that’s the right answer.
So what’s the gist? This one isn’t as easy to read as the last two. I think both Mitt and Newt did pretty well (the other two were non-entities). But if pressed I’d call it for Newt because he has explosive momentum on his side right now. And I don’t think this was enough to change that dynamic.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.