Ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to rumble. About three weeks before the first votes of the GOP nomination race are cast, we have evidence that the knives have been sharpened and are ready for use.
The Republican debate on Saturday highlighted some of the key arguments candidates are making against each other on the stage, the airwaves, and on the campaign trail as they vie for support among voters. Just as much as the attack itself, the effectiveness of such efforts is dictated by the candidate lobbing the bomb. For instance, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a reputation as a flip-flopper with Republican primary voters, criticizes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on consistency, it's not as damaging as when Texas Rep. Ron Paul makes the same case.
Gingrich and Romney, who have recently topped national polls, have been the obvious targets of criticism. And with the first ballots on the verge of being cast, the battle lines have been drawn.
When it comes to labeling Gingrich a hypocrite, it's Paul who is most effective. The longtime congressman has often been the most pure libertarian voice in Washington, D.C., and has a record of holding to his principles even when he finds himself standing alone. In addition to launching a television advertisement in Iowa highlighting the former House speaker's changing position on some issues, Paul called Gingrich out in the most recent debate for funds he collected from Freddie Mac. The housing giant that was bailed out with taxpayer funds reportedly paid Gingrich more than $1 million for "strategic advice."
"In a way, Newt, I think you've probably got some of our taxpayers' money," Paul said on Saturday. "And you have admitted many of the positions where you have changed positions. I think there would be a little bit of trouble with anyone competing with me on consistency."
Adding to the apparent hypocrisy was the fact that earlier in the campaign, Gingrich said lawmakers who had collected campaign donations from the mortgage giant should be put in jail.
Gingrich is also feeling the heat from Romney. Citing Gingrich's recent comments about Palestinians being an "invented people," Romney claimed he would never be "a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally."
The former governor said while he may not disagree specifically with what Gingrich said, he would let the Israelis speak for themselves on the topic rather than potentially cause them problems.
"Israel does not want us to make it more difficult for them to sit down with the Palestinians. We're going to tell the truth, but we're not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot when our friends the Israelis would probably say, 'What in the world are you doing?'" Romney said. "If I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability and make sure that in a setting like this anything that I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying, I don't do anything that would harm that process."
But it's Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann who has recently stepped up to make the strongest conservative case against the top two candidates, who she dubbed "Newt Romney" during Saturday night's debate.
"Newt Romney," she said, have at times supported individual healthcare mandates, carbon cap-and-trade programs, the $700 billion Wall Street bailout known as TARP, and most recently supported a payroll tax break extension.
"Our nominee is someone who is a stark, distinct difference with President Obama who can go toe-to-toe and hold him accountable. Our nominee has to be willing to not agree with Barack Obama on these issues but stand 180 degrees opposite him," she said. "Of all the candidates on this stage, I have been fighting President Obama for every year that I've been there."
Playing on conservative concerns, she asked, "Do we honestly believe the two men who have just stood on this stage and defended Romneycare when it was put in place in Massachusetts and the individual mandate when he proposed it in 1993--are they honestly going to get rid of it in 2012?"