DES MOINES — Newt Gingrich is still standing.
Three weeks before Iowa Republicans cast the first votes for a 2012 presidential nominee, the man who leads in Iowa and other early voting states such as South Carolina and Florida has emerged seemingly unscathed from a barrage of criticism from rivals in a fiery debate in Iowa.
He still has to survive one more debate — Thursday in Sioux City, Iowa — before the voting starts Jan. 3. At the same time, a wave of TV ads in Iowa echoes the themes of the Saturday night debate in Des Moines — slamming the former Speaker of the House of Representatives as an unprincipled flip-flopper and inflammatory leader who speaks before he thinks.
Those messages could sink in with voters in the final weeks. But if rivals were hoping to goad Gingrich into looking angry or rash, they failed. In fact, if anyone stumbled, it was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his rich-guy offer of a $10,000 bet to another candidate.
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"Nobody knocked him off his perch," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, which hosted the debate Saturday. "If anything, Gingrich came out more formidable than anyone thought."
Smiling and confident, Gingrich appeared to enjoy the center stage in the two-hour debate in Des Moines, a spot awarded by ABC according to his lead in the polls, even though it also brought barbs from all sides.
When Romney called him a career politician and boasted that he spent his life in the private sector, Gingrich shot back that Romney only avoided being a career politician because he lost a bid for the late Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat in 1994.
When Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota slammed him as someone who'd once embraced liberal positions on issues such as a government mandate to people to buy health insurance and as a Washington insider who's made more than $100 million, Gingrich told her she should check her facts.
And when Romney suggested Gingrich was inflammatory and irresponsible for saying the Palestinians are an "invented" people, Gingrich defiantly called himself a courageous truth teller in the mold of Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire."
Potentially more stinging, he suggested that Romney is too cautious, too calculating, to lead.
Call it confident or call it cocky, that kind of bold, take-no-prisoners stand is what is endearing Gingrich to many Republicans eager for an assertive champion to take on President Barack Obama.
And it's coming at the expense of Romney. New polls Sunday showed Gingrich opening a big lead over Romney in South Carolina and Florida — which vote immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire. The NBC-Marist polls showed Gingrich leading Romney 42-23 in South Carolina, and 44-29 in Florida.
"Gingrich has surged," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist
College in New York, which conducted the polls. "But also, Romney has declined."
Romney, who otherwise gave another solid debate performance, committed the one potential gaffe of the evening when he dared Texas Gov. Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet on who was right about part of Romney's record.
The demand to bet $10,000 — which Perry did not accept — represented about one fifth of Iowa's median annual income of $48,000 and could suggest a chasm between those voters and Romney, who is worth an estimated $190 million to $250 million.
Miringoff likened it to a moment in a 1992 debate when then-President George H.W. Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch.
Although Bush later said he was checking to make sure a rival was staying within the time limit, he was widely portrayed as impatient with having to debate. It helped define him, and hurt his candidacy for re-election. So, too, Romney could find the $10,000 bet reinforcing an image of him as a wealthy man without much in common with voters.
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist not aligned with any campaign this year, called the bet offer an "elitist" comment that will cost Romney. "Gov. Romney lost a lot more than 10,000 bucks last night," he said on NBC's Meet the Press program.
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