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Gingrich Gets Through Debate Unscathed While Romney Doesn't

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in a debate give and take, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in a debate give and take, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.

The $10,000 bet offer.

If Saturday night's Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, is remembered for anything, it may be for that moment where Mitt Romney made what seemed to many a substantial blunder by offering to wager Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 on whether the governor had his facts right about Romney's record.

For a super-wealthy candidate who has had problems connecting with regular voters, it seemed an ill-advised move, reinforcing his image as a tone-deaf rich guy lacking the common touch. And it didn't help that it came during a time of severe economic pain for many of Americans, employed or not.

Time will tell, however, just how harmful that gaffe will be to Romney's chances to be his party's nominee.

It certainly didn't help him accomplish what had to be his main goals going into the evening which were: slow Newt Gingrich's momentum, make no memorable mistakes and persuade Republican voters that he was the safer, more electable GOP choice than the former speaker to put up against President Obama.

Unlike Romney, Gingrich, the frontrunner in national and many state polls, didn't make any obvious errors. He also weathered the criticisms that came his way because of his current role as pace-setter in the polls. All in all, it was a solid performance for Gingrich who showed his satisfaction with how the evening was going at a few points by winking to someone in the audience, presumably Callista, wife number three.

Speaking of which, Gingrich practically sailed through what was potentially the most challenging part of the debate for him, when the question arose as to whether a candidate's marital fidelity was an important consideration for voters in choosing a president.

Gingrich said it was and largely defused the issue by acknowledging that he had made mistakes and had asked God "for forgiveness. I've had to seek reconciliation."

He added:

"But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust. And all I can tell you is that, you know, I am — delighted at the way people have been willing to look at who I am, to look at what my record has been, and the amount of support we're getting from the American people and from all across the State of Iowa, the number of people who have supported — the candidacy of real change and a record of real change."

Besides his past marriages, Gingrich had to fend off flak from Romney and the other candidates, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota on a number of fronts.

To name just a few, the former House speaker was attacked for his past support for individual health care mandates, his acceptance of $1.6 million from Freddie Mac to be a "strategic adviser" and some of his more out-of-the-box ideas, like setting up colonies on the moon to mine minerals.

But on all those charges and more, Gingrich, long one of the glibbest politicians around, showed himself skilled at thinking on his feet, a master at deflecting attacks.

Gingrich's deftness at the rhetorical thrust and parry shone through when Romney attacked him for a recent controversial comment about Palestinians in which Gingrich called them an "invented people."

Romney, trying to paint Gingrich as too reckless to be the GOP presidential nominee, let alone president, said:

"... Before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, "Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do? Let's work together, because we're partners." I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally."

To which Gingrich played the Ronald Reagan card:

"I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire and who overruled his entire State Department in order to say, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.' Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and reframed the world. I am a Reaganite, I'm proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid."

Iowa has become a three-person race, according to the polls, with Rep. Ron Paul now running second in the most recent Des Moines Register survey of those likely to attend the January 3 Iowa caucuses.

Paul has some of the toughest ads against Gingrich in Iowa, raising questions about the former speaker's integrity and accusing him of "serial hypocrisy."

Asked by moderator George Stephanopolous of ABC News about that charge, Paul didn't back down. He said that some of the money Gingrich received from Freddie Mac was likely taxpayer money.

Addressing Gingrich and then voters, he said::

"But there's been many positions, and you have admitted many of the positions where you have changed positions. But — you know, if you were lookin' for a consistent position, you know, I — I think there's — a little bit of trouble anybody competing with me on consistency."

That last line got a big laugh from the audience and one of the largest rounds of applause of the evening.

Perry had one of his better debates, which isn't exactly saying much since some of his past performances have been so atrocious. He committed a few gaffes and made a strong play for the religious conservative vote by taking a hard line on the fidelity question which was really a Gingrich question:

"If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn't you cheat on your business partner or why wouldn't you cheat on anybody for that matter?"

Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, also had a relatively strong performance. He talked up his conservative credentials and stayed positive, not attacking any other candidates. Still, it's unclear what he can do at this point to enter the top tier of candidates.

Bachmann, meanwhile, appeared to be hoping to attract whatever Cain voters were out there still looking for a candidate to rally to. Near the start of the debate, she mentioned Cain's "999" tax plan, saying she had a "win, win, win" plan. Near the end, she mentioned a Cain and said he proved you could energize voters with a straight-forward idea.

It was a noteworthy change of heart for her since when Cain was in the race she knocked his plan, even once suggesting that "999" upside down looked a whole lot like "666," the biblical mark of the beast.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.