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Following his solid debate performance, can Newt Gingrich be stopped?

In the crucial Iowa debate, Newt Gingrich came across as steady and principled, flexible or unwavering as he saw the need. The one major gaffe was Mitt Romney's $10,000 challenge to Rick Perry.

By Staff writer / December 11, 2011

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich during the Republican debate, Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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All eyes were on Newt Gingrich Saturday night in Iowa. And for debate-watchers – and especially Republicans still looking for a candidate they can get enthusiastic about – he did not disappoint.

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The former House Speaker – a Washington insider publicly accused by many fellow Republicans and conservative commentators of being an unsteady rhetorical bomb-thrower with an out-sized ego – came across as steady and principled, flexible or unwavering as he saw the need.

And while some 70 percent of Iowa caucus-goers still say they could change their mind about whom they’ll vote for in next month’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest, Gingrich – leading in the polls – is the man to beat.

"He entered the debate with momentum and did not lose any momentum," Iowa Republican strategist Richard Schwarm told the Des Moines Register. "Despite being the main target, he was not damaged."

For every shot his rivals took, Gingrich seemed to have a ready and reasonable answer.

His one-time support for requiring most Americans to have health insurance?

That was in line with what many conservatives believed at the time as they tried to head off the national health care plans of then-first lady Hillary Clinton.

The notion of colonizing the moon and mining it for minerals?

“I’m proud of trying to find things that give young people a reason to study science, math and technology,” he said. “I grew up in the generation where the space program was real, where it was important and where frankly it is tragic that NASA has been so bureaucratized.”

His widely-reported and acknowledged marital infidelities?

Noting that he is "a 68-year-old grandfather" (whose granddaughter was in the audience urging him to smile more), he addressed the question head-on, noting that “people have to render judgment.”

"I said upfront, openly, I've made mistakes at times," he said. "I've had to go to God for forgiveness."

On Friday, Gingrich had told the Jewish Channel cable network that Palestinians are an “invented” people with no apparent right to their own country – an assertion contrary to the policies of Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

He later seemed to back-pedal, his campaign spokesman stating, “Gingrich supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.”

Mitt Romney tried to paint the episode as an indicator that Gingrich is a “bomb-thrower” harming the Middle East peace process.

Likening his comments to former president Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire,” Gingrich retorted that “I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.” – the “timid” reference an obvious poke at Romney.

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