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Debate Roundup: Romney Strikes Back as Gingrich Plays Defense

At the last two debates in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich took charge with stinging attacks on the moderators and on Mitt Romney. But in the first of two Florida debates this week, Romney took the offensive, landing a number of telling blows on Gingrich. For the first time in this series of debates, the former Massachusetts governor didn’t play the frontrunner attempting to rise above the fray with his only focus on Barack Obama. Instead, he zeroed in on Gingrich’s record as a Washington influence peddler and paid advocate. Though at times he tried to turn the tables on Romney, Gingrich was consistently put on the defensive as he tried to defend his record, leaving him few opportunities to score points or to deliver one of his trademark rants at the expense of those hosting the debate.

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 circumstance. Having gotten back on top, he may think he needs to act a bit more presidential in order to convince wavering Republicans 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.

It will be interesting to see whether the recent tilt toward Gingrich can withstand the heightened exposure given to the candidate’s foibles and record. One could argue that if Republicans haven’t cared that much about the Freddie Mac issue or Gingrich’s chaotic leadership while he was speaker of the House up until now, then why should they start taking it seriously now? Nevertheless, Gingrich’s less than satisfactory answers may help chip away at his lead. If the polls show any tilt back in Romney’s direction in the next two days, expect Gingrich to go back to breathing fire at the next debate Thursday night.

Rick Santorum was also on his game, landing some strong punches of his own, especially when he claimed both Gingrich and Romney were relative liberals when compared to him on health care and cap and trade. But with the focus so much on the two top candidates, he struggled at times to get a word in edgewise. Though Santorum needed something to happen to get back into contention, the debate reflected the current state of the race in that at times he seemed as much of an afterthought as libertarian outlier Ron Paul.

It will be interesting to see if Romney can sustain an entire week of going on the offensive, as it is so out of character for him. Nevertheless, the debate was at the very least the first step on the road to a comeback for Romney. He has a long way to go, but unless he keeps it up, there will be no stopping Gingrich in Florida. That means Romney’s presidential hopes are riding on his ability to sustain this aggressive spirit.