Debate Exposes Newt Gingrich's Strengths and Weaknesses

His matsery of the issues is offset by his image as a Beltway insider.

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It was a classic Newt Gingrich performance at last night's Republican presidential debate in Iowa as he demonstrated again that he is the quintessential roller-coaster candidate with both powerful strengths and powerful weaknesses.

In the end, Gingrich emerged where he started—under sharp attack from his rivals and under increasing scrutiny by the media as he tries to maintain his position as the GOP front-runner. He comes across as the candidate with the most potential but also with the most baggage, an individual whose strong conservative arguments and mastery of the issues are sometimes outweighed by his behavior as a Washington insider and an intemperate shape-shifter.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Newt Gingrich]

Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, repeatedly appealed to the emotions of many conservatives. For example, he gave a fiery response when asked to elaborate on his statements that some federal courts should be abolished and some judges should be summoned to Congress in order to justify their rulings—views that some have criticized as out of bounds.

But Gingrich went on to make an articulate case against the federal judiciary that brought enthusiastic cheers from many in the crowd in Sioux City, Iowa. "The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial," he said, calling some unnamed Supreme Court justices "arrogant" and "far too powerful." He added: "We do not have a judicial dictatorship in this country."

Gingrich was on the defensive for much of the debate. He didn't lose his temper, but he failed to put to rest a controversy over his taking $1.6 million in payments as a consultant from the controversial lending giant Freddie Mac. When Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota criticized him for "influence peddling," he denied he had ever been a lobbyist and said, "I was a private citizen engaged in a business like any other business."

[See a slide show of Newt Gingrich's career.]

The debate was the last one before the Iowa nominating caucuses January 3. Gingrich didn't commit any major gaffes, but neither did his main rival for the nomination, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. A venture capitalist for many years, Romney was again steady and unflappable as he billed himself as the candidate who knows best how to create jobs in the private sector.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has been surging in Iowa, promoted his libertarian views on cutting federal power and slashing the federal budget by $1 trillion in a single year. But his advocacy of cutting back on U.S. military commitments abroad and other dovish comments on national security seemed out of synch with many in the audience.

Now that the debates have concluded in Iowa, the GOP campaign in the state will feature on-the-ground campaigning by the candidates and a barrage of television advertising. This runup to the January 3 voting will probably be the most negative phase of the cycle, and it appears that front-runner Gingrich will be the main target.

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