Iowa Debate: Clueless Romney's $10,000 Bet Blunder Makes Gingrich the Man to Beat
In a spirited Saturday night debate with no clear winner, there was one clear loser: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, once considered the inevitable 2012 presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The ABC News debate, moderated by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, took place at Drake University in Iowa, whose caucuses will kick off the Republican primary season in less than three weeks.
Romney's defeat came not at the hands of the current frontrunner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but was instead was the gift of his own mouth. In a moment reminiscent of George H.W. Bush's clueless campaign romp through a grocers' conference -- when he beheld with wonder the miracle that was a barcode scanner -- Romney challenged rival Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, to a bet. A $10,000 bet.
Not Just a Mormon: A Rich Mormon Who Gambles
The wager was offered when Perry took Romney to task for a change Perry said he noticed in a later edition of Romney's book, No Apology; Perry claimed that a sentence was deleted from the paperback edition in which the author offered his Massachusetts health care plan as a model for the nation's. Perry went on to accuse Romney of being a proponent of the individual mandate in the health-care reform law signed by President Barack Obama last year, a favorite bugaboo of right-wingers.
Romney denied the charge. Then he upped the ante.
"I'll tell you what," Romney said, "10,000 bucks? Ten-thousand-dollar bet?"
"I'm not in the betting business," Perry replied.
Within minutes, pundits were having a field day. Before long, the hashtag, #What10kbuys, was trending on Twitter (with a little help from the Democratic National Committee, which apparently got it started.
Jake Tapper of ABC News pointed out that Romney's bet equaled three months' salary for the average Iowan. Romney, whose personal worth is estimated at between $190 million and $250 million, according to the Los Angeles Times, has never been much of a man of the people. But in hard economic times, that's not exactly the kind of thing you want to point out. Especially in an important early state where Romney bears a heavy burden because of his Mormon faith. In Iowa, where the GOP base is heavily evangelical, probably the only thing worse for a candidate than being a Mormon is being a rich Mormon. Or a rich Mormon who gambles.
Perry's response was surprisingly deft: By claiming not to be "in the betting business," Perry highlighted his own evangelical faith in contrast to Romney's Mormonism, a religion described, with great fanfare, by a Perry surrogate as "a cult" last October at the Values Voter Summit, the annual religious-right gathering sponsored by the political arm of the Family Research Council. Evangelicals are generally opposed to gambling.
If You Knew Bibi Like I Know Bibi
The debate found Newt Gingrich in fine form: combative, as usual, but with enough discipline not to go sailing off the cliff of his own preternatural contempt for virtually every human but himself. Except for once.
When Romney sought to distinguish himself from Gingrich, who is now polling at 33 percent in Iowa, according to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll (compared with Romney's 18 percent), by saying he had spent most of his career in the private sector while Gingrich spent his life in politics, Gingrich pointed out that the only reason Romney wasn't a career politician was that he lost a Senate election to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994.
The crowd in the hall booed. Iowans may not love Romney, but they apparently don't like obvious meanness. Unless you're talking about Muslims.
Asked to defend his remarks to a Jewish television channel that the Palestinians were "an invented people," Gingrich insisted that the term "Palestinian" wasn't commonly used until the late 1970s, and that there never was a "Palestine" because it was part of the Ottoman empire. (By that reasoning, one could say that there never was a Tibet, either.) During the exchange Gingrich asserted his authority as an historian.
"These people are terrorists," Gingrich said. "They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say, 'If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?' ... It's time for somebody to stand up and say, 'Enough lying about the Middle East.'"
The crowd applauded robustly.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is tied with Romney in the ABC News/Washington Post Iowa poll, took Gingrich to task for "stirring up trouble," and getting involved "in other people's squabbles" in a region where the United States is already overextended. "[H]istorically, under the Ottoman empire, yes, the Palestinians didn't have a state," Paul said, "but neither did Israel have a state then, too."
Romney asserted that Gingrich's comments were probably not helpful to the prime minister of Israel, whom he called by his nickname, "Bibi" Netanyahu.
Then ensued a contest between Gingrich and Romney over who knew Netanyahu better.
"I've known Bibi Netanyahu since 1984," Gingrich asserted.
"i've also known Bibi Netanyahu a long time; we worked together at Boston Consulting Group," Romney replied.
(Yet another man-of-the-people statement from Romney. BCG promotes the offshoring of jobs and capital by U.S. corporations, according to a recent investigation by Remapping Debate.)
"I'm not a bomb-thrower -- rhetorically or literally," Romney added.
A Cheater Is a Cheater Is a Cheater
As the only known serial adulterer left in the race, Gingrich knew this was coming: the family values segment in which he would be hammered for his history of adultery, his two divorces and three marriages.
The first pitch was thrown by Stephanopoulos to Perry, who has been married to his wife, Anita, for 29 years. Asked if he thought that "a candidate who breaks his marital vows is more likely to break faith with voters," Perry basically said yes.
"I've always kind of been of the opinion that if you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner," Perry said. "So I think that issue of fidelity is important." He went on to say that when he said his marriage vows, he made a vow to God. "When I make a vow to God, then I would suggest to you that's even stronger than a handshake in Texas."
The other candidates made similar points but, like Perry, none named Gingrich specifically.
In his defense, Gingrich acknowledged that the issue was important, but he implored voters to judge him not on who he was in the past, but who he is now, describing himself as "a 68-year-old grandfather."
"I think people have to render judgment," Gingrich said. "In my case, I said up front openly, I've made mistakes at times. I've had to go to God for forgiveness. I've had to seek reconciliation."
Missing Herman Cain, and Everybody Loves Ron Paul
With Herman Cain gone from the race, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., sought to pick up what remnant of Cain's support had not yet been snatched up Gingrich by renaming her economic agenda the "Win-Win-Win" plan, which she mentioned in the same breath with the vanquished Cain's "9-9-9" plan. Like Cain, Bachmann has frequently been a featured speaker at events sponsored by the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, which is chaired by billionaire David Koch. When ask to choose who among her fellow candidates she most appreciated, Bachmann cited Cain for his "plain-spoken" deliver and "simple" message.
Bachmann also sought to stay in the came by trying to blur differences between Romney and Gingrich, referring to the pair as "Newt Romney."
Locked in a virtual tie with Bachmann, according to the ABC News poll is former Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn., (polling at 8 and 7 percent, respectively) who drifts ever further into irrelevance, with no major backers to speak of, and a twitchy, humorless on-stage presence. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman now trails so badly in the Iowa polls (2 percent in the ABC News survey) that he failed to qualify to participate in the debate.
Ron Paul, however, is quite another story. Tied for second place with Romney in Iowa, Paul found himself the recipient of plaudits from nearly all of his fellow candidates, who hope to peel off some of his supporters come caucus time. Especially solicitous was Rick Perry, whose relationship with Paul has been tense in the past. But with Perry hanging in fourth place in Iowa, with 11 percent in the ABC News poll, Perry had nothing but kind things to say about his fellow Texan. It was from Ron Paul, Perry said, that he learned about the Federal Reserve.
Newt Gingrich did Perry a kindness, saying it was from the Texas governor that he realized the importance of the 10th Amendment (the favorite item on the Bill of Rights for states' rights advocates). Perry reacquainted Americans with the amendment when, in 2009, he suggested that Texas might secede from the U.S. rather than implement President Obama's health-care reform plan.
But Ron Paul did Gingrich no kindnesses, instead pointing up the former speaker's "hypocrisy," and calling attention to Gingrich's shilling on behalf of the government-supported mortgage giant Freddie Mac, for which Gingrich received some $1.8 million, according to Bloomberg News.
"By the way, Newt, you probably got some of our taxpayer money," Paul said. "You were a spokesman for them and you received money from them."
"I offered strategic advice -- I was in the private sector.", Gingrich replied.
Romney chimed in with the skoff, "K Street is not the private sector!"
Newt's to Lose, or Paul's to Win
If there was a winner in Saturday's debate, it was Ron Paul, who made a strong case for his own ideological consistency, especially when compared with the other top-tier contenders.
Gingrich would be wise not to take his lead for granted, not to chalk it all up to his quick-footed debate performances or the self-proclaimed genius of his own ideas.
Make no mistake: Newt Gingrich is winning in Iowa right now because he is the last non-Mormon left standing whose candidacy the chattering classes have deemed "viable." But Ron Paul is drawing big crowds in the Hawkeye state, and the Iowa caucuses are famous for yielding surprises (Mike Huckabee in 2008; Pat Buchanan's near win in 1996). Yes, Ron Paul could actually win this thing. In Iowa, at least, where two-thirds of Republicans are saying they could still shift their allegiance to another candidate.
Ron Paul was quick to remind the audience that, of all the candidates, he has been the most ideologically consistent. If you stay in the arena and stick to your message, Paul said, eventually the other candidates will "come your way," he said.