With the Republican primary debate field narrowed to six by Herman Cain's decision to suspend his campaign and the exclusion of Jon Huntsman, the four candidates who are neither Newt Gingrich nor Mitt Romney ganged up on the two frontrunners in what was one of the most lively and intense debates so far.
Rep. Michele Bachmann lumped the two together as "Newt Romney," charging that the pair were for ObamaCare, illegal immigration, cap and trade emissions regulation, the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, and President Obama's payroll tax cut. Mr. Gingrich, she said, supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance for 20 years, longer than Barack Obama. And Governor Romney, she said, was the only governor to "put in place socialized medicine."
Mr. Gingrich replied, "a lot of what you say just isn't true, period." He said he opposed ObamaCare and cap-and-trade, and that his original support for an individual mandate had been as an alternative to Hillary Clinton's health plan.
Mr. Romney said he never favored a federal health insurance mandate, just a state one.
Asked Rep. Ron Paul, "Why should we have a candidate that has to explain themselves?"
Ms. Bachmann said the support by Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney for mandates would make it harder for either of them to repeal ObamaCare if elected.
Mr. Gingrich, the leader in recent Iowa polls, also came in for scrutiny for his past marital infidelity. In response to a question about whether voters should consider marital fidelity, Governor Perry said, "Not only did I make a vow to my wife, I made a vow to God. That's even stronger than a handshake in Texas."
Mr. Gingrich acknowledged, "It's a real issue. I have made mistakes at times."
Mr. Romney also criticized Mr. Gingrich for what Mr. Romney called "a mistake" of characterizing the Palestinian Arabs as an invented people, which Mr. Romney said was "incendiary." Said Mr. Romney, "I will exercise sobriety, care, stability. I'm not a bomb-thrower, rhetorically or literally."
Mr. Gingrich replied by comparing his remark to President Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." "I'm a Reaganite," Mr. Gingrich said. "I will tell the truth."
Ms. Bachmann portrayed Mr. Gingrich as a Washington insider. "People don't want Washington. They want outside of Washington," she said.
Mr. Perry made a similar argument: "It's gonna take an outsider," he said.
Mr. Romney was strongest when he accused President Obama of trying to transform America into "an entitlement society" from a "merit society."
Mr. Gingrich pushed back at Mr. Romney's touting of his lifetime in the private sector, asserting, "The only reason you didn't become a career politicians is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
Mr. Romney seemed sometimes to run counter to free market principles, as when he faulted Mr. Gingrich for wanting to "spend our precious dollars for a tax cut" on capital gains for those earning more than $200,000 a year. Mr. Gingrich didn't get a chance to make the obvious response, which is that the dollars aren't "ours," but belong to those who earned them in the first place.
Mr. Romney also twice criticized President Obama for cutting Medicare as part of ObamaCare.
At one point, Mr. Romney tried to make a $10,000 bet with Governor Perry. Mr. Perry turned him down, but the offer probably will reinforce what conception voters already have of Mr. Romney as so rich as to be out of touch with the problems of ordinary Americans.
Senator Santorum also participated and did reasonably well. He's lagging in the polls far enough behind that no one bothers to attack him, yet by being included in the final six he raises his own stature by appearing on their level. Mr. Gingrich credited Mr. Santorum for influencing him on Iran policy.
From this vantage point, it seems like a highly fluid race. I wouldn't be surprised to see Iowa voters or possibly South Carolina voters make one more move toward a candidate who is not "Newt Romney," but it's getting late for any of the alternatives. Mr. Perry has the money but not the momentum or the articulation ability. Mr. Santorum doesn't have the money or possibly the stature, though the money could flow in fast if he does very well in Iowa. Ron Paul has the fervent supporters but a significant portion of the party disagrees with him strongly on foreign policy, and he doesn't have the executive experience. Ms. Bachmann had a very good debate tonight but has been weak in some prior outings and doesn't have the executive experience either.
As Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos reminded everyone, Iowans caucus in 24 days. It will be nice to finally have some voters weigh in on these decisions rather than just pollsters and pundits. The cumulative judgments of those voters have a way of deciding these things better than any alternative.