Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney Clash In Subdued Tampa Debate

Monday's debate in Tampa was a far more subdued affair than what we saw last week.

After last week’s debates in South Carolina, the clash last night between the remaining Republican candidates will likely be seen as something of a let down by people who prefer to see their politics as something more resembling WWE’s Monday Night Raw than William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Firing Line. There were no major clashes with the moderator, no dressing down of Brian Williams the way Newt Gingrich went after John King last Thursday. There were clashes between the candidates, and a few punches landed, of course, but the whole affair seemed far more subdued than anything we’ve seen so far. Partly, that’s because at the start of the debate Williams had asked the audience to remain quiet and to limit their reaction after candidates answers. Not only did the audience listen to him, but for much of the debate it seemed like they were barely in the room and it was just Williams and the four candidates there. Politico’s Maggie Habermann noted during the debate that the lack of an engaged audience was hindering the impact of Newt Gingrich’s responses at times, but I think it actually impacted all of the candidates, who seemed at times to be uncomfortable with the lack of feedback after what were probably intended as applause lines. It took a lot of energy out of the room, and made for a much different debate:

TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney leveled a searing attack against Newt Gingrich’s character and raised pointed questions about his ability to lead during a debate here Monday evening, taking urgent steps to slow Mr. Gingrich’s rising momentum in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination.

For the first time, Mr. Gingrich strode onto the stage as an indisputable equal to Mr. Romney after dislodging him from his confident perch as the front-runner. Mr. Romney dug into his rival’s tenure as House speaker and the ensuing years, when he advised companies like the mortgage giant Freddie Mac, a period for which Mr. Romney branded him as “an influence peddler in Washington.”

“You are looking for a person who can lead this country at a very critical time,” said Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. “The speaker was given the opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994, and after four years he resigned in disgrace.”

Mr. Gingrich, who swept into Florida after a commanding victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, painted Mr. Romney’s attacks as desperate and riddled with inaccuracies. He embraced his confrontational style and defended himself forcefully, but his responses came without the bombast that has delighted crowds throughout the race.

“They’re not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay,” Mr. Gingrich said. “They’re sending somebody to Washington to change it, and that requires somebody who’s prepared to be controversial when necessary.”

The new landscape of the Republican campaign came into sharp view, with Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich often seeming as though they had traded personalities for the evening as they auditioned to become the strongest challenger to President Obama. It was clear from the outset that the tables had turned, as Mr. Romney repeatedly tried to provoke Mr. Gingrich, who has built up a reputation as a formidable debater.

“I’m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney’s misinformation,” Mr. Gingrich said, telegraphing his plan to try to take the high road. “I think the American public deserves a discussion about how to beat Barack Obama.”

Yet on the eve of the president’s State of the Union address, the debate was notable for the lack of time devoted to Mr. Obama. It was the first sign of the consequences of a drawn-out Republican nominating contest, with Mr. Obama taking a back seat to terse re-examinations of the candidates’ records.

Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas looked on for long stretches of time as Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich tangled again and again.

Mr. Romney, with his campaign aides at all battle stations, seized on Mr. Gingrich’s release of one of his consulting contracts with the government-sponsored mortgage lender Freddie Mac just hours before the debate. He said it showed that Mr. Gingrich was reporting to its chief lobbyist, while “Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars” because of the housing meltdown.

Mr. Gingrich renewed his assertion that he was not working as a registered lobbyist. He pushed back against Mr. Romney’s charges, declaring, “There’s a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty, and that’s sad.”

As the two started arguing about the revenues of their respective businesses, Mr. Romney at one point raised his voice to say, “You were working for Freddie Mac, you were working for Freddie Mac.”

Mr. Romney kept pressing Mr. Gingrich on whether his work met the precise definition of lobbying, saying that some members of Congress have claimed that for all practical purposes, Mr. Gingrich lobbied them.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mr. Gingrich cut in. “You just jumped a long way over there, friend,” he said, calling Mr. Romney’s charges unfair. “The American people see through it.”

The two men even tussled over what would happen to Fidel Castro’s soul upon his death. Asked how he would handle a potential influx of Cubans to American shores, a critical issue to the large Cuban population here in Florida, Mr. Romney said, “You thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker.”

But when Mr. Gingrich was posed the same question, he replied, “I don’t think that Fidel’s going to meet his maker — I think he’s going to go to the other place.” He added that he would make “every asset available, including appropriate covert operations,” to ensure the end of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba.

The evening also included a discussion of issues with particular resonance in Florida, including illegal immigration. Mr. Romney said he was not in favor of trying to “round people up,” and explained that he supported a system of “self-deportation.”

In the opening hour of the debate, the two leading Republican rivals seemed at times like committed fighters trading punches in the final round — tired but determined. The vitriol of their claims often exceeded the energy with which they were delivered.

The raucous audiences that cheered Mr. Gingrich on during two South Carolina debates last week were missing. A sedate audience of fewer than 500 people was seated in the auditorium at the University of South Florida, including business leaders, academics and even the British and French ambassadors to the United States.

The debate opened a critical weeklong fight in the run-up to the Florida primary, the outcome of which will help shape the length and direction of the party’s nominating battle. Mr. Romney may hold an advantage in money and mechanics, but Mr. Gingrich has an edge in message and momentum.

One of the most immediate reactions I saw after the debate last night is that it was “boring.” Bryan Preston’s assessment is typical of the people who came to this conclusion:

NBC’s decision to forbid the studio audience from applauding, plus Brian Williams’ evident fear of being flayed alive on stage by either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, dictated that this debate would be far less energetic than the South Carolina episodes. But no one forced Williams to conduct the entire first half hour without ever asking a single policy question. He asked questions about the candidates’ records and how each has lately characterized the others’, and that produced a slow but argumentative start.

No doubt, Williams didn’t want to walk into the same trap that John King did just a few days before, but I’ve honestly got to say that I didn’t find the debate boring and for the most part thought that Williams did a decent job moderating. Yes, it would have been nice if there were fewer questions about process issues and more questions about policy. It would have been nice if more time had been spend on the economy and less on Mitt Romney’s tax returns and Newt Gingrich’s Freddie Mac contract. However, these are the things that have become the issues in the race and it would have been impossible to ignore them. There were also diversions on issues that probably didn’t have much interest for anyone outside of Florida, such as sugar subsidies, the Everglades, the Space Program, and, for some reason, Terri Schaivo. If the debate was “boring,” it was boring because it didn’t erupt into verbal fisticuffs between the candidates while the audience cheered lustily. That may make for a great television show, but I don’t see it as something that makes for a particularly informative debate between candidates vying to be their party’s nominee for President of the United States.

There was really only one story heading into the debate, though, and that was the race between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. It was generally agreed beforehand that Romney needed to at least score some points against Romney if only to stop Newt’s rise in the polls and start changing the terms of the debate in the final week before the Florida Primary. As I noted yesterday, Romney and his surrogates had started going negative on Gingrich as early as Sunday, emphasizing both his record as Speaker and his relationship with Freddie Mac. Both issues came up last night, and although the attacks seemed somewhat subdued because of the lack of audience response, I agree with Philip Klein that Romney did score some points, while Newt seemed on the defensive:

Mitt Romney came in tonight’s debate coming off the worst week of his campaign — two terrible performances last week, getting blown out by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, seeing his lead evaporate in Florida and nationally. But tonight, he had a generally strong performance. In the exchange most likely to be talked about, he absolutely destroyed Gingrich by methodically exposing his untenable position on his work for Freddie Mac, about which Tim Carney has written a great deal. Not only was Gingrich put on the defensive during that exchange, but unlike last week’s debates, in which he fed off the energy and applause of the crowd, the subdued audience tonight seemed to sap his passion and energy.

Jonathan Tobin mostly agrees:

In the midst of what was one of the most boring of all the GOP debates it was a good night for Romney and may help slow down Gingrich’s momentum. But this was no knockout. Gingrich was on his heels most of the night but there were no gaffes. Nor is it clear whether merely going on the attack is going to convince conservatives that Romney is their kind of candidate. For all of his aggressiveness and strong arguments about free enterprise, Romney still lacked the ideological passion that helped propel Gingrich back into the lead last week.

As for Gingrich, his low-key demeanor may have been as much a matter of calculation as we it was circumstance. Having gotten back on top, he may think he needs to act a bit more presidential in order to convince wavering Republicans that he can win. But the price he paid for this more decorous presence was a low-key presentation that betrayed little of the emotion or fire that conservatives like.

I suppose I should mention that there were two other candidates at the debate last night, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Santorum got a few good points in against Gingrich and Romney. Ron Paul’s most memorable moment came during a rambling response when he seemed to defend Newt Gingrich’s time as Speaker of the House. In fact, there was some oddly complementary stuff going back and forth between Paul and Gingrich all night, with Gingrich in particular going out of his way to complement Paul’s position on issues like the Federal Reserve Board at one point. In the end, though, neither Santorum nor Paul are factors in the race at this point and, as I suggested at one point on Twitter, the two of them may as well spent the evening hanging out at a Starbucks.

The question, of course, is what impact all of this will have on the race. Last week, we saw two debates that had a huge impact on the race. Not only did they lead to Newt Gingrich winning South Carolina, but it’s also catapulted him him the lead in Florida and put him within one point of Romney in Gallup’s National Tracking Poll. Coming into tonight’s debate, Romney had to do something to at least stop, if not reverse, that trend. This is why Gingrich’s record had been a constant theme for the Romney campaign since South Carolina ended. Will it work? That’s something only time will tell. As I noted last night, Romney simply isn’t the type of candidate that is going to inspire people to get to their feet and applaud the way Gingrich did. He needs to give them a reason to vote for him, though. Whether he started to make that case last night is something that only the polls, and ultimately the voters next Tuesday, will be able to tell us.

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Doug Mataconis
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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    The format and the moderator didn’t allow for the crowd to become a factor and Gingrich was taking the high road. Obviously Romney thought he had to create some fireworks with his personal attacks but I’m not sure it did him any good because Gingrich didn’t get frazzled (in fact he looked exceedingly calm) and Romney looked as if he was rather obviously breaching the 11th commandment. I see there’s a third poll out giving Gingrich a 5% lead so its fairly clear the ground has shifted. Did last night’s debate alter the basic dynamic? Probably not.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Romney’s taxes are out…let’s get to discussing him paying a 13.9% effective tax rate.

  3. Andre Kenji says:

    Savannah Guthire should moderate a debate for NBC. It would be really fun.

  4. @Hey Norm: