Commentary: Fun in Iowa with the GOP

DES MOINES, Iowa — For Newt Gingrich, it was his first night as prime-time headliner instead of crusty sitcom sidekick.

For Mitt Romney, it was his first round on the ropes in a prizefight that might last till August.

But for voter Mary Morter, 74, of Des Moines, it was another chance to torment visiting politicians.

"Hey, Newt! Oh, Newt? Wait a minute for an old lady!" the retired schoolteacher shouted in a singsong voice, toddling down a sidewalk toward the Republican front-runner on his way into another mostly empty campaign event.

He glanced back at the cameras, then walked 15 feet out of his way to give her a kiss.

She turned and gave a daughter a sly grin.

"See? I told you -- these candidates will do anything we want," she said.

She said Iowans "play" with candidates: "We ain't got nothing better to do."

TV would never tell this story, but most of Iowa had something better to do Saturday. In a season when debates seem as ubiquitous as college football bowl games, the Republican presidential contenders are becoming like visiting cousins who never go home.

At a half-empty Romney rally, free pizzas outnumbered guests.

Voter Steve Pollman of Ankeny, Iowa, explained: "We see these people so much, it becomes a blur."

Several rallies, forums and other events Saturday drew more reporters and workers than Iowa voters.

But if Iowans were jaded or bored before the debate, Gingrich and Romney blasted them awake with a night that left TV viewers wanting a championship rematch.

In speeches all day, Gingrich argued that the candidates shouldn't attack each other. But Romney and Gov. Rick Perry are already airing blistering campaign ads against the former House speaker.

At the Romney rally, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped a hint when he said the big difference between the former Massachusetts governor and Gingrich is Romney's "stability."

By night's end, Romney was playing Mr. Cool to the hothead Gingrich, slamming him for telling the Jewish Channel that he considers Palestinians an "invented" people.

When Gingrich stood his ground, saying it's time American leaders called Palestinian leaders "terrorists," Romney promised, "I am not a bomb-thrower."

But Romney played it too cool when he offered Perry a sanctimonious $10,000 bet over a quote from Romney's book.

Romney talked like a man who might be carrying a $10,000 bill.

Perry gave him the aw-shucks reply: "I'm not in the betting business."

It was Perry's most memorable moment of the debate.

For the moment, his campaign has all but vanished into an Iowa corn patch.