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Romney Fights, Gingrich Falters In Final Florida Debate

Last night’s debate was a clash, but it wasn’t the one that everyone was expecting by any means. After Newt Gingrich’s rather flat performance on Monday in front of a quiet audience and a week in which he found himself getting hit from all sides by Romney surrogates who knew him when he was Speaker of the House and even before then, everyone expected that Newt Gingrich would come out fighting last night and that the crowd would be behind him. What Gingrich clearly wasn’t expecting, though, was that Mitt Romney would not only be ready for Gingrich, but prepared to hit back at him in ways that clearly rattled the former Speaker and, suprisingly, the crowd was never really behind him either. Instead of coming out fighting, Gingrich had what most observers seem to agree was his worst debate of the cycle, while Romney, Rick Santorum, and a few times even Ron Paul, stole the show:

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mitt Romney, facing his greatest challenge of the campaign so far, relentlessly pressed Newt Gingrich on Thursday night in their final debate before the Florida primary, seeking to regain the offensive against an insurgent challenge that has shaken his claim to inevitability.

On immigration, personal finances and the grand ideas that have been the trademark of Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy, Mr. Romney gave his rival no quarter, giving prime time voice to his campaign’s all-out, round-the-clock assault on Mr. Gingrich here.

In a debate in which Mr. Romney could ill afford to allow Mr. Gingrich another triumphant night, he delivered sharp lines that gave him an advantage usually held by Mr. Gingrich: applause from the audience.

After being accused in so many debates of pandering, this time it was Mr. Romney accusing Mr. Gingrich of playing to the crowd with his proposal for a lunar colony, which Mr. Romney said may be popular around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida but unrealistic in practice. “I spent 25 years in business,” Mr. Romney said. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’ ”

And, clearly prepared with reams of research, he frequently turned Mr. Gingrich’s attacks back against him. When Mr. Gingrich pressed Mr. Romney for having investments in Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and with Goldman Sachs, “which is today foreclosing on Floridians,” Mr. Romney was ready with an attack of his own.

“Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments?” he asked. “You also have investments for mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Effectively shut down, Mr. Gingrich turned grim and said meekly, “All right.”

(…)

And Mr. Romney gave no ground, even when Mr. Gingrich at one point seemed willing to do so. The moderator, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, effectively invited Mr. Gingrich to critique Mr. Romney’s release this week of his tax returns, which disclosed that his blind trust included a Swiss bank account that was shut down in 2010.

“How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening we’ll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?” Mr. Gingrich responded when Mr. Blitzer asked him if he was satisfied that Mr. Romney was sufficiently transparent in releasing his tax returns.

But after Mr. Blitzer noted that Mr. Gingrich had made an issue of Mr. Romney’s personal wealth earlier this week, Mr. Romney said sternly, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?” Inviting a fight in which he used offense as defense, as he did many times during the course of the night, he told Mr. Gingrich, “I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who’ve been successful.”

The one candidate who was able to lay a glove on Mitt Romney last night was Rick Santorum who, in an extended exchange with the former Massachusetts Governor on health care managed to score points on the one part of Romney’s resume that conservatives have the biggest problems. It’s something candidates like Tim Pawlenty have been trying to do since at least August without success. Santorum succeeded where the others failed, but I’ doubt that it’s going to matter, for three simple reasons.

First, this isn’t August, it’s January. As I noted during my debate commentary last night, I don’t think there’s a Republican voter out there who isn’t aware of RomneyCare at this point. It’s a fact about Rommey’s career that voters have already factored into whatever judgment they’ve made about the candidate, and it’s either something they can live with or it’s totally unacceptable. Second, Santorum’s criticism of Romney basically boiled down to the assertion that he won’t be able to counter Obama on health care reform because of his record in Massachusetts. What Santorum forgets is something that will happen before the General Election that will change the entire tenor of the health care debate. In June, the Supreme Court will rule on the Constitutionality of the PPACA. If it strikes down the law, the debate is over. If it upholds it, then the entire tenor of the debate will change and the President will have the upper hand.  In either case, I really doubt that health care reform is going to be the biggest issue in the election anyway. People are going to be worried about the economy and jobs, and the impending expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Finally, it really doesn’t matter how well Rick Santorum did last night because he’s no longer a factor in the race. He’s polling in the single digits, hasn’t put a single ad on the air in any Florida media market, and is returning home to Pennsylvania this weekend after doing a few media hits on Florida radio this morning. To the extent Rick Santorum is helped by this debate performance, it ultimately ends up helping Mitt Romney, because Santorum is most likely to take votes from Newt Gingrich. So, yes, Rick Santorum did well last night but the only reason it matters is because of the impact he could have on the race between Romney and Gingrich.

Ron Paul had a good night last night as well. Asked about the dispute between Romney and Gingrich over who had invested what money in Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, Paul got the crowd on his aside by saying the subject doesn’t interest him at all. But it’s probably Paul’s lighter moments that people will be talking about today:

The Texas congressman might not be No. 1 in the polls, but when it comes to one-liners, he was the crowd favorite.

Asked where he stands on Gingrich’s proposal to put a permanent base on the moon, Paul said, “Well, I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.”

Paul also had the crowd cheering in response to a question about releasing his medical records.

Paul, who at 76 would be the oldest president of the United States if elected, said he is willing to make his medical records public, noting that “it’s about one page, if even that long.”

“I’m willing to challenge any of these gentlemen up here to a 25-mile bike ride any time of the day in the heat of Texas,” he continued, “But, you know, there are laws against age discrimination, so if you push this too much, you better be careful.”

Paul also turned a more serious topic — U.S. trade and travel policies with Cuba — into a humorous moment.

“Imagine you’re in the Oval Office, you speak to Raul Castro. What would you say to him?” Blitzer asked.

“Well, I’d ask him what he called about, you know?” he responded.

They were moments of levity in what was otherwise a pretty serious affair. Again, it won’t matter as far as the result is concerned, but at least it was more amusing that Wolf Blitzer’s idiotic decision to ask each of the candidates explain why their wife would make a great First Lady. Way to go for the substance there, Wolf (I wish Herman Cain were still in the race just so we could call him Blitz, personally).

The main combatants in the debate, though, were Gingrich and Romney and of those two there’s no question that Romney came out on top once again. As Jonathan Bernstein points out, we learned once again last night that Newt Gingrich isn’t as great a debater as people thought he was:

For the second time this week, Newt showed that his debate skills are massively overrated, particularly his ability to attack an opponent with clear vulnerabilities. And Mitt Romney demonstrated exactly how to go about carving up an overmatched opponent. This time, not even having a noisy audience to appeal to could save the former Speaker. Several times over the course of the debate, Romney hit Newt hard, and Newt sputtered around and couldn’t find an effective response. On immigration, on Freddie Mac and on Romney’s investments, Newt couldn’t find an exchange that worked for him. The final blow was a long (long, long) segment about space, and Newt’s easily-mocked plan for a lunar colony, which Romney effectively dismissed — and called Gingrich out on pandering to the narrow interests of each state they’ve competed in. It’s sometimes hard to read how these things play to voters, but I thought it all combined to be pretty devastating. Intrade agreed: Newt’s chances of winning the nomination according to the bettors there went from about 10% down to around 3% over the course of the debate.

Romney had one stumble last night, and it was over the content of a Spanish language radio ad which plays off a comment that Gingrich had made a few years calling bilingual education “the language of living in a ghetto.” The radio ad in question says that Gingrich had called Spanish the “language of the ghetto” and Gingrich disputed this. Romney’s response to a question from Blitzer about the ad was confused mostly because he didn’t seem to know that this was an actual campaign ad that’s being run on Spanish language radio throughout the state and not a SuperPAC ad. It was a slip-up, but not one that I think will matter in the end especially since Politifact has rated the Romney as as “Mostly True.”

There is a Quinnipiac Poll out this morning, conducted mostly before the debate, that has Romney up nine points in Florida over Gingrich. After the debate, I expect that margin to increase absent some massive mis-step by Romney on the campaign trail. That doesn’t seem likely to happen, though. As Conor Friedersdorf points out, this week it seems to be Newt Gingrich’s turn to make mistakes:

One way to think about the last few days is that Newt Gingrich committed multiple unforced errors – calling an opponent anti-immigrant, touting a lunar colony. But that’s slightly misleading, because it presumes that he is capable of avoiding comically grandiose ideas, or engaging other candidates in debate without lapsing into disdain and cheap demagoguery. As far as I know, there isn’t any evidence suggesting he can sustain even that low level of self-discipline for more than a few days. And he doesn’t get to choose which days. He is, as he once put it, “a very unconventional candidate.” It’s a quality that helped his rise. This week, it perhaps cost him the nomination.

Perhaps it will. At the very, least, it’s clear that while losing Florida wouldn’t knock Gingrich out of the race it has the potential cause him serious damage going into a month in which there’s only one debate, on February 22nd. If that’s how it pans out, then Newt Gingrich has only himself to blame.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. How you liking that audience participation now, Newt?

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  2. Andre Kenji says:

    The point is not that Gingrich is a good debater. The point is that Gingrich can articulate a message, can show emotions, even if his ideas and message are idiotic. Romney can´t do any of this.

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  3. Fiona says:

    I’ve always thought that Newt’s skill as a debater was highly overestimated (and not just by Newt). Same for his supposed intelligence. Newt’s a bomb thrower. In any kind of extended match of wits, where mastery of actual facts is called for, he does poorly. Obama would have eaten him alive, just as Mitt did last night. Newt is a narcissistic bully and when somebody steps up to him, he shrivels. Heck, even Wolf Blitzer got the better of him last night.

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  4. Hey Norm says:

    Romney clearly won…but did he say anything that wasn’t a lie?
    He didn’t know if an ad he approved was accurate.
    He didn’t know about Fannie/Freddie investments he did know about.
    It as if, when confronted, his gut rection is to make something up.
    How does that not become an issue by November? Wait…Maybe Republicans don’t care about honesty. There…that’s better.

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  5. DRS says:

    Romney won because for nearly the first time (and I’m including the 2008 run, although I’m open to correction on that) he actually looked like he was willing to get off his ass and fight for the nomination. I wonder if the Republican Establishment (TM) sent a delegation to read him the Riot Act about doing a better job. Did Jeb Bush’s refusal to endorse him send a message? Will Jeb endorse him now?

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  6. Conspiracy theory: Gingrich is actually part of Romney’s campaign. His job is to make all the arguments that Obama would make to attack Romney in the general election, but to do it so badly and in be such a dick doing it that Obama can’t make those same attack without reminding people of Gingrich. And Romney can float above it be responding “we went through all this in the primary already and the American people decided they don’t care. Now maybe my opponent wants to spend this campaign rehashing the same unscrupulous and failed arguments we’ve all heard before, but I think the American people deserve a discussion of the real issues this country faces.”

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  7. @DRS:

    On CNN they noted that after SC, Romney got rid of his debate coach and this is the first debate that the newly hired the guy (who used to be Bachmann’s debate coach) prepared him for. So that explains the “new Mitt” last night.

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  8. Hey Norm says:

    @ Stormy…
    3 thoughts on your conspiracy theory…
    First…I don’t think republicans are capable of that much forethought. They play Checkers…not 3D Chess. Think Jethro Bodine…not Mr. Spock.
    Second…I think Obama laid out his campaign in the SOTU…and it bears no real resemblance to Gingriches attacks.
    Third…Gingrich’s colossal ego would never allow him to be the foil.

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  9. Andre Kenji says:

    Romney line that he wasn´t anti-imigration because his wife came from Wales is going to be pretty toxic among Hispanics in the general election.

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  10. Bleev K says:

    I don’t know who win and I don’t care. The big loser of the night is me who have to chose between these two clowns.

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  11. Eleonore says:

    Ron Paul claims to be against big government and liberty, but he isn’t. He is pro big government and his government is called Google-WalMart-ExxonMobil. He is talking about liberty but he has no clue about that. You little stupid sheeps you believe him, can’t help you, you have to learn. Let him in power and see what happens to your life yourself, until it does not hurt you, you will never learn that people that could have a chance to win elections in the US, will never be against big government

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  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    Doug and the Republican establishment can sleep easily in their beds. The crazy man is fading. The fact that in that NBC/WSJ poll yesterday in straight contest between the two Gingrich came out on top is not very important. Dough mentions the irrational belief among the Republican base that Gingrich could out debate Obama, which I agree there is no evidence for, but one the other hand the belief that Romney is a stronger candidate is perhaps just as irrational. In the context of an election fought on issues of the economy, economic fairness and so forth Romney has quite as much baggage as Newt and he’s going to have to fight the election on a platform that can be summarised as scrap Medicare and SS so that the Romney and those like him can pay even less taxes. Now some conservative commentators make no secret of the fact that Romney doesn’t really believe what he’s saying and will smartly tack back to the middle. I’m not quite sure how he does this given the mood of his party and the factual record that Obama will spend a billion bucks publicising, but that’s what these folks believe.

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  13. Haha:

    http://www.nationaljournal.com/2012-presidential-campaign/gingrich-campaign-debate-audience-stacked-for-romney-20120127

    Just two days after complaining that NBC wasn’t letting the audience freely express their approval or disapproval, Gingrich is now whining how last night’s audience was too much on Romney’s side.

    God, you’re pathetic Newt. Have you no self-respect at all?

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  14. I don´t think that Romney won. That line that he wasn´t against immigration because his wife came from WALES is like someone scratching his nails in the blackboard to any Hispanic.

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