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Opinion: Iowa Debate Report Card - Newt Wins by Not Losing

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GOP Drake University Debate Results – Steffen Schmidt Saturday night's GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa consolidated Newt Gingrich’s front-runner status. Although targeted by all the contenders and directly attacked by Rick Perry, who lectured the audience that "if you cheat on your wife, you will cheat on your business partner,” Gingrich stayed steady.

I simultaneously live-blogged for It's A Free Country and the Des Moines Register, and I believe there was a general consensus that Newt survived the test. The magic of Newt is precisely that he’s a flame throwing, grenade launching radical, and that's what Iowa and other voters seem to want against Obama. Newt now runs great against Obama in all the polls I’ve seen. But Gingrich still has the establishment “long knives” coming out against him, and he may still make some huge mistake of arrogance.

Mitt Romney seemed unfocused and tired. His smile was strained and he did not have a seamless, consistent pace as he has had in previous debates. This was his worst performance, not a good omen for a candidate who has been sliding and is ramping up media accompanied by a massive media buy by the SuperPac that backs him. Maybe that’s the way to go but his team must be troubled and anxious. The “lunar colony” Newt has suggested that Mitt opposes got laughs. Romney seems “too Kerry like – a flip-flopping East Coast blue blood,” as one of my friends said.

Rick Perry surprised everyone with an almost “ooops!” free performance. That’s crucial since he has not risen in the polls. This is a great way for him to start his two-week bus tour of Iowa. I think the “handsome cowboy” as one of my European blog followers calls him, will connect well in rural Iowa cafes and VFW halls. Keep an eye on Perry. Three weeks is a lifetime and he may yet defy the odds on caucus night.

Michele Bachmann once again showed her skillful and clever debating skills. She invented a clever hybrid “Newt Romney” which clearly stung the two and set her apart. I’d keep an eye on Bachmann, because she’s got a good seed bed established after months and months of slogging across her home state. Polls cannot measure the potential crop of delegates that could bear fruit from that investment during the January 3 caucus night vote. Never overestimate polls or underestimate ground troops and organization when it comes to the caucuses.

Ron Paul rambled on too much on “consistency” and did not come out with a clear sharp guided missile at Newt, which he has done before. Dr. Paul must be tired - he’s been in Iowa campaigning hard and late into the night. Ron Paul seems to be the Harold Stassen of politics. The perennial former Minnesota Governor ran 12 times between 1944 and 2000, and it would seem that Paul is gunning for the role.

That said, Drake University students were polled on their favorite candidate at the debate, which was held on their campus. The results: 35 percent for Ron Paul, 25 percent for Romney, and 10 percent for Gingrich. No surprise here - there were over 1,000 at the Ron Paul speech on Friday at Iowa State University.

Rick Santorum was ok but he needed to close the deal again, and this was his last chance. His circumspect criticism of Gingrich was too indirect and he just seems not to be getting any traction. It's sort hard to understand because he is error free, has some good national political experience, and probably the most socially conservative of the lot. He just can’t seem to spin a compelling and memorable phrase. One of my Republican coffee friends said, “He’s the Dan Quayle of 2012.” He does remind one of the young former VP.

The biggest loser of the night? Donald Trump. He was not there and has been dissed by almost all the candidates. Only Gingrich and Santorum have agreed to the ridiculous debate Trump plans to moderate. Republicans have almost unanimously rejected him as a legitimate player in GOP politics.

Maybe there is still some holiday sanity in politics.

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for