In the Arena

19 Days Till Iowa: Previewing The Zany Debate

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney points to fellow republican candidate Newt Gingrich as he speaks during the ABC News GOP Presidential Debate on Dec. 10, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Republican presidential debates have been a fabulous spectacle, wildly entertaining, often substantive, absolutely great for democracy–and, now, symmetrical. Tonight’s Fox News debate, the last before the Iowa precinct caucuses, revolves around one question: What will Mitt Romney say when he is asked whether he thinks Newt Gingrich is zany?

This brings us back to one of the first debates in the summer, when Tim Pawlenty–you remember him–whiffed when asked to expound on his description of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health plan as ObamneyCare. It was a terribly awkward moment, and helped to scuttle Pawlenty’s campaign (although if he’d stayed in, Pawlenty could probably have had his own shot at front-runnerdom by now).

So let’s assume Romney knows the question is coming. His answer, I suspect, will be something along the lines of: “Well, he has had some odd ideas. I mean, Newt, what were you thinking when you proposed those moon colonies? And he has been…overly enthusiastic at times. Many of us gave serious consideration to the question of global warming, but Newt, you sat down and cut an ad with Nancy Pelosi. All of us are appalled by President Obama’s refusal to stand with Israel, but Newt–as we discussed the other night–you didn’t have to call the Palestinians an “invented” people. That may have made things more difficult for our allies. ┬áIn the end, the President has to be strong, and speak clearly, as Ronald Reagan did, but he also has to be prudent. I love your enthusiasm, Newt. You often have great ideas. I’d love to consult you when I’m President. But prudence is not a quality most people associate with you.”

The question then becomes, how does Newt respond? This could be the crucial moment of his candidacy. The most important thing: he will have to control his anger. In the past, he has used such opportunities to attack the press–he might not tonight, since it’s a Fox News debate–but he could say, “I don’t think it does the party any good for you and me, Mitt, to stand here attacking each other. That’s exactly what Barack Obama wants.” And then he could make the case for himself…He might well plead guilty to past exuberance–“This is a country where anything is possible, and yes, in the past, I’ve dared to dream about American possibilities, like a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, after 40 years of Democrat control”–and he could plead adulthood now (68-year-old grandfather). He could then talk about his record–“I don’t think the balanced budgets of the 1990s and 11 million new jobs created was particularly, zany…do you, Mitt?”

I’m sure both campaigns have chewed over this obvious scenario. Both candidates are excellent debaters. Romney will have to be prepared for Gingrich’s response. And he may well anticipate Newt by saying something like, “Hey look, there’s good kind of zany–like daring to dream that Republicans could take over the House in the 1990s…but the presidency demands different skills.” In any case, this will be a peak moment for those of us who love high-stakes political fencing.

I expect that Gingrich may have a more difficult time defending the $1.6 million he received from Freddie Mac–an accusation that Ron Paul is likely to raise.

Meanwhile, a Rasmussen poll this morning has Romney back on top in Iowa–23 to 20 for Gingrich (a big drop) to 18 for Paul. Does this mean anything? Maybe just a little–the big Gingrich drop may be additional evidence that yesterday’s Newt-Stall zeitgeist had some substance.