NATCHITOCHES, La., January 23, 2012—Minutes into the GOP debate in Tampa, Mitt Romney launched a series of forceful attacks against Newt Gingrich.
After his 12 point loss to Gingrich in South Carolina, the Romney campaign had already ramped up attacks on Gingrich in Florida. That loss was clearly a wake-up call to a campaign that had spent months playing a “four corners” defense against its rivals, assuming that it held an unassailable lead and had only to run down the clock. The campaign has learned the importance of a strong offense.
“I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina, and that was I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of attacks. And I’m not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire,” Romney said. And return fire he did.
“The Speaker was given the opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. At the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace.” He went on to observe, “Don’t forget at the end of the speaker’s term as speaker, his approval rating was down to 18 percent. We suffered historic losses.”
Gingrich attempted to dismiss Romney’s attacks. “I’m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney’s misinformation.” But Romney didn’t let up, scoring his strongest hits when he brought up Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac. Arguing that he did indeed earn his money as an historian, Gingrich declared, “The fact is I offered strategic advice, largely based on my knowledge of history.”
Disputing that, Romney noted that $25,000 monthly payments weren’t credibly just for explaining history. Gingrich provided advice on matters up for legislative action. “You can call it whatever you like. I call it influence peddling. It’s not right, you have a conflict.”
It was almost half an hour into the debate before Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were able to fully enter the discussion. The questions turned to immigration, the housing market, English as an official language, the embargo of Cuba and the potential for war in Iran. Paul was emphatic in his rejection of the Cuban embargo, arguing that the Cold War is over. He also claimed that our naval actions in the Persian Gulf are already an act of war, asking whether it made sense that we treat potential Iranian responses as the real act of war.
There was nothing new in the performances of Paul and Santorum. They took no unexpected positions, they seemed comfortable in the debate routine, but neither ever took center stage. That was dominated by Gingrich and Romney.
Gingrich wasn’t subdued, but he never displayed the calculated outrage he has in earlier debates. His performance was restrained, almost cautious. Romney was more assertive than he’s been to date, showing passion that so far has been largely missing from his debate performances. It didn’t hurt him and probably helped, but whether it was enough to slow Gingrich’s momentum is an open question.
Florida was stripped of half its delegates by the RNC for moving its primary into January, but it’s a winner-take-all state with enough delegates to matter. Romney has the money and organization to keep on going if he loses, and a win still leaves Gingrich short of both. But a win there will matter hugely to the morale of their respective campaigns, and it was clear during the debate that both understand that. They will certainly make new mistakes in coming weeks, but both showed tonight that they intend to avoid the old ones.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. His son wants him to stop watching “all those stupid debates.” He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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