DES MOINES, Iowa — Newt Gingrich is facing his first debate as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Standing next to him will be Mitt Romney, whose campaign has launched an all-out offensive against Gingrich's record and leadership style.
With less than a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, the debate at 9 p.m. EST Saturday will focus on the federal budget deficit. It also promises a political drama as Gingrich and Romney meet amid a sharp back-and-forth waged by their campaigns.
Gingrich rose to the top of polls largely because of how he's performed in the other 10 debates this year. He's expecting his new position in the race to mean his rivals will criticize him head-on this time, aides say.
If they do, aides say Gingrich knows how he hopes to handle it: Pause, step back and laugh.
That's how Gingrich has responded in the past to what he's often deemed "gotcha" questions from debate moderators — before dressing them down, usually to much applause from the audience.
"I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions," Gingrich snapped at Fox News anchor Chris Wallace during one debate. In another debate, the former House speaker told Politico editor John Harris, "I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other."
His challenge Saturday night will be maintaining that cool in the face of the kind of repeated, sustained attacks that he's avoided in previous sparring matches — and thus passing the temperament test. Responding the wrong way could reinforce critics' charges that he's too undisciplined to lead the country.
The criticism could come from any corner. As the days dwindle before voting begins Jan. 3 in Iowa, almost all of his rivals are piling on. Rep. Michele Bachmann has called Gingrich an "influence peddler." Former Sen. Rick Santorum has criticized Gingrich's record in Congress, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has hit his support for a national insurance mandate in the 1990s.
Most likely to take a swipe at the front-runner are Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Romney, who are next in line in Iowa polls. Paul is running an ad accusing Gingrich of "serial hypocrisy." Romney's campaign has used Gingrich's comments about Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan — Gingrich once called it "right-wing social engineering" — to accuse him of irrational decision-making and poor leadership.
Romney has been content to let surrogates and others backing his campaign provide the sharpest words against Gingrich. On Friday, in remarks to The Des Moines Register's editorial board, he spoke more directly about policy differences with Gingrich and how their experiences separated them.
Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said the former Massachusetts governor won't step back from criticizing Gingrich's record during Saturday's debate. "He's going to draw a contrast between his record and the other candidates. I think you've seen the beginning of that this week," she said.
Romney's strategy with Gingrich is beginning to mirror what his campaign did with Perry, who entered the race in August and immediately rose to the top of polls. Ahead of debates, Romney's team rolled out new attacks on Perry — first hitting some of the Texas governor's comments on Social Security and then attacking him for his record on immigration. Romney also delivered those attacks himself in two debates.
Romney has turned in a series of strong debate performances. He's made few mistakes and hasn't been repeatedly attacked by his rivals.
"I think I've got the best ideas for our nation," he said at a campaign stop Friday. "I think I've got some pretty good zingers. I think I will be able to best post up against the president, particularly if we're talking about the economy."
But it's Gingrich's performances that voters have noticed. In a Des Moines Register poll released in early December, 50 percent of likely caucus-goers said Gingrich is the best debater. Romney was a distant second with 14 percent.
Aides say his success is due, in part, to careful study.
Since May, Gingrich has been practicing speaking in one-minute intervals, the length of time required by the debates. He's done it both in debate preparation — originally with the help of campaign staffers who abandoned him in June — and on the campaign trail, giving prepared speeches in one-minute pieces.
He's specifically prepared by reading through almost all of Ronald Reagan's debate transcripts from his 1980 presidential campaign, looking to learn from Reagan's communication style.
Gingrich also specifically asked campaign staff for a transcript and video of the famous exchange between Reagan and a debate moderator, John Breen, because he viewed the New Hampshire primary debate where it took place as the first time Reagan was really being attacked by his Republican rivals.
When the moderator asked to have Reagan's microphone turned off, Reagan responded, to great applause, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen!" That moment helped reinvigorate Reagan's campaign.
Campaign staffers also sent Gingrich a transcript of Reagan's debate with Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1967. Reagan, then governor of California, debated the Vietnam War with Kennedy, a New York Democrat.
But Reagan's most salient lesson for Gingrich heading into Saturday night's debate comes from his famous exchange with President Jimmy Carter.
As Carter launched into an attack on Reagan's views, Reagan defused it with four words that came to define the campaign: "There you go again!"