Newt Gingrich rolls with the punches to give opponents a headache

 

Los Angeles

For now, the Newt Gingrich bandwagon rolls on.

The former US Speaker enhanced his standing in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, emerging virtually unscathed from his first debate since assuming the mantle of frontrunner from Mitt Romney.

In Des Moines, Iowa, Gingrich spent two hours of Saturday night parrying assaults on his character, marital fidelity, political consistency, business career, and foreign policy credentials, as rivals attempted to find a productive line of attack for the days and weeks ahead.

The fact that he managed to roll with the punches leaves other candidates with a growing headache this late in the political calendar. There are just 22 days to go until the Iowa Caucuses, and Gingrich now has a clear lead in every early-voting state with the exception of New Hampshire.

Thus far, the GOP race has resembled a game of musical chairs, with first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and more recently Herman Cain enjoying spells as the most talked-about alternative to Mitt Romney, the longstanding favourite who has nonetheless failed to increase his support above a lukewarm 28 percent in the polls. But their support has tended to collapse under proper scrutiny.

By contrast, Gingrich was a case-study in steadiness. He dealt calmly with criticisms of his private life, acknowledging that he has “made mistakes” in past marital infidelities and  saying he is changed from the errant husband who has famously cheated on not one, but two  ex-spouses.

“I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation,” Gingrich said, stressing his conversion to Catholicism and suggesting that his days of sexual adventure are past, saying: “I am a 68-year-old grandfather.”

On the foreign policy front, Mr Gingrich doubled down on controversial comments he gave to a Jewish television station last week, in which he claimed that the Palestinians were an “invented people” and described them as “terrorists.”

“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,” he said, to warm applause from the overwhelmingly conservative audience. “I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.”

Later, Gingrich turned around an attack by Mitt Romney on his alleged status as a “career politician,” pointing out that Romney has spent most of the past 20 years seeking high office, but has consistently failed to win high-profile elections. “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is, you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” he said.

It was a notably poor night for Romney, who at one point committed what pundits called an unforced error by seeking to casually strike a $10,000 bet with Texas Governor Rick Perry over a disputed point of fact regarding healthcare.

The size of the proposed wager served only to highlight the vast wealth Romney has made in the venture capital industry, which critics say makes him out-of-touch. Seeking to gamble also puts Romney at odds with the teachings of the Mormon Church, in which he is a former bishop.

Perhaps the only real blow against Gingrich came via Michele Bachmann, who mocked him for his recent carrer lobbyist on K Street (“The Rodeo Drive of Washington DC”) and criticised him for having in the past taken allegedly-liberal positions on healthcare and climate change.

Ms Bachmann, who is still pitching herself as a right-wing alternative to establishment candidates, claimed that Gingrich and Romney share centrist positions on an array of topics, and dubbed them: “Newt Romney.”

That nickname, which amused many in the audience, seems likely to be given another airing at the next GOP debate, on Thursday in Iowa. In the meantime, one person who will be cheering Gingrich's rise is Barack Obama.  A new NBC poll suggests he would narrowly lose the key states of Florida and Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney next November, but is in line to beat Gingrich there, handily.

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