Newt Gingrich’s status in the Republican presidential campaign went from “frontrunner” to “barely hanging on” over the course of about two weeks. There’s no great mystery as to why: $4 million in attack ads from Mitt Romney’s Super PAC tore the disgraced former House Speaker to shreds.

Gingrich, not surprisingly, is pretty unhappy about it, and pressed Romney on the point in yesterday’s debate. The former governor had an interesting response. First, there was this line:

“With regards to their ads, I haven’t seen ’em.”

That was followed 14 seconds later with this line:

“The ad I saw said that…”

At that point, Romney proceeded to describe the contents of the attack ad that he hadn’t seen in quite a bit of detail.

It wasn’t long before the Democratic National Committee was highlighting the bizarre contradiction.

YouTube video

Of particular interest was a piece from Ben Smith’s BuzzFeed, which noted Romney’s “inexplicable debate fibs” and “odd, small shadings of truth.”

This is a real danger for Romney. Some of his lies are less obvious to campaign reporters, because they require a little fact-checking research. But this one was obvious to anyone awake during the debate — Romney couldn’t possibly know the script of an ad he knew nothing about. And once he develops a well-deserved reputation as someone who’s willing to routinely say things that aren’t true, it has the potential to do significant damage to his credibility.

Also note, Romney didn’t have to lie about this; the truth would have been just as good. But we’re reaching the point at which Romney is telling falsehoods reflexively, without thinking it through.

“Inexplicable,” indeed.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.