One reason to be skeptical of Newt Gingrich’s big lead is that thanks to a quirk in the campaign schedule he’s yet to face a truly difficult debate since becoming frontrunner. Of the last three gatherings, two were focused on national security (not a big topic in the current race) and the other one consisted of individual interviews with each candidate in which they were asked not to attack each other.
That means Gingrich has yet to endure what former frontrunners like Herman Cain and Rick Perry have in debates: a pile-on. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in this campaign, there’s nothing more damaging than a lousy debate night.
But Newt’s free ride ends Saturday in Iowa, when the rest of the field finally gets a chance to take Gingrich down a peg at the ABC News/Yahoo! debate.
Earlier this week, Mitt Romney launched an all-out effort to derail Gingrich’s campaign, accusing him of betraying the GOP back in May when he condemned Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization proposal as “right wing social engineering.” It’s clear he wants to knock Gingrich out fast, so if the ex-Speaker wants to survive he’s going to have to endure a well-funded onslaught of negative ads.
And it’s not just Romney going after Newt. Rick Perry has an ad bashing Gingrich and Romney for their support for health care mandates. Ron Paul’s gone after Gingrich. They almost certainly will repeat their attacks on Saturday and, since it’s Newt we’re talking about, there’s no telling which vulnerability they’ll even pick to focus on: his conservative lapses? His ethics violations? His personal life? His wackier ideas? All of the above and more?
So far Gingrich has declined to respond directly to his rivals, saying he’s keeping his campaign positive, but it’ll be tough to keep his cool when faced with a barrage from the rest of the field in person. Adding to the pressure, many of the candidates are banking hard on an Iowa win and with the January 3 caucuses right around the corner, time is running out to make a move. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, for example, have gone all-in and kept up an active presence in the state for most of the year. Ron Paul is looking like a legitimate contender to win the state or place second in polls and the debate could be a chance for him to make further gains. There’s no reason for any of these candidates to hold back with the nomination on the line, especially since they have little chance of a post in a Romney or Gingrich administration, let alone a VP spot.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.