DES MOINES, Iowaâ€”Newt Gingrich is still standing.
Three weeks before Iowa Republicans cast the first votes for a 2012 presidential nominee, the man who leads polls in Iowa and other early voting states such as South Carolina and Florida emerged seemingly unscathed from a barrage of criticism from rivals in a fiery debate in Iowa.
He still has to survive one more debate â€” Thursday in Sioux City, Iowa â€” 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 House speaker 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 offer of a $10,000 bet to another candidate.
â€œNobody knocked him off his perch,â€ said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, which hosted the debate Saturday. â€œIf anything, Gingrich came out more formidable than anyone thought.â€
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 criticism 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 avoided being a career politician only because he lost a campaign for the Senate in 1994.
When Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota slammed him as someone who once embraced liberal positions on issues such as a government mandate to people to buy health insurance and as a Washington insider whoâ€™s made more than $100 million, Gingrich told her she should check her facts.
And when Romney suggested that Gingrich was inflammatory and irresponsible for saying the Palestinians are an â€œinventedâ€ people, Gingrich called himself a courageous truth-teller in the mold of Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an â€œevil empire.â€
Potentially more stinging, he suggested that Romney is too cautious and too calculating, to lead.
Call it confident or call it cocky, that kind of bold stand is what endears Gingrich to many Republicans eager for an assertive champion to take on President Barack Obama.
And itâ€™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 to 23 percent in South Carolina, and 44 to 29 percent in Florida.
Romney, who otherwise gave another solid debate performance, committed the one potential gaffe of the evening when he offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet on who was right about part of Romneyâ€™s record.
The demand to bet $10,000, which Perry did not accept, represented about one-fifth of Iowaâ€™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.
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the Florida and South Carolina,
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 â€œelitistâ€ comment that will cost Romney. â€œGov. Romney lost a lot more than 10,000 bucks last night,â€ he said on NBCâ€™s â€œMeet the Pressâ€ on Sunday.