In the repeat of a pattern that has characterized the Republican presidential race since last summer, a new batch of opinion polls show that since Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney has not only halted Newt Gingrich’s momentum but has regained the lead in the crucial Florida primary. But with five days left until Florida Republicans vote, the question today is whether Gingrich can use tonight’s debate (8 p.m. on CNN) to reclaim the mantle of conservative insurgent he has so skillfully utilized in the past.
The good news for Gingrich is that unlike Monday’s debate in Tampa where the audience was discouraged from applauding or reacting in any way to the proceedings, CNN is once again encouraging those in the hall in Jacksonville to whoop and holler as much as they like. The lack of audience reaction was seen as helping to tone down Gingrich’s demeanor on Monday. That was in marked contrast to the way he played off the crowd when he challenged CNN moderator John King’s opening question about his second wife’s accusations of misbehavior. That means we can probably expect Gingrich to come out swinging at the media and Romney and hope he can once again induce those in attendance to stand and cheer.
That leaves Romney with an interesting dilemma. On Monday night, he directly challenged Gingrich on his past record of leadership failures as well as his Freddie Mac and health care lobbying. Though Romney benefited from going on the offensive, such attacks tonight may give Gingrich an excuse for another contrived tirade with which he hopes to seize control of the debate. That last debate was the first in which it could be said Romney bested Gingrich. A repeat of that performance could doom the latter, because almost all of his recent success has rested on the perception he is a debate champion.
Nevertheless, Romney would be foolish to revert to a frontrunner mentality in which he tried to ignore Gingrich’s attacks. This has been a race in which voters have consistently reacted negatively to candidates who acted as if they had the nomination sewn up. This is especially troublesome for Romney, whose main drawback for GOP voters rests in the perception that he is the establishment choice being imposed on them whether they like it or not. Moreover, Romney knows most conservatives dislike him as a moderate, an image that has allowed a longtime Washington insider like Gingrich to become the favorite of Tea Party voters. The only way Romney can overcome this disadvantage is to remind voters of Gingrich’s character issues and record. Assuming a more aggressive stance toward his opponent can also persuade some Republicans that Romney not only cares deeply about the issues but also is someone who can take on President Obama in the fall.
Meanwhile, Rick Santorum, and to a lesser extent Ron Paul, will be fighting for attention and to get a word in edgewise as they did earlier this week. But the focus will almost certainly remain on Gingrich as he tries again to appeal to the audience in the hall as well as those watching on television.
The importance of this debate for Gingrich can’t be overestimated. This is not only the last scheduled GOP debate before Florida but also the last one for almost a month. The last time there was this long a break between debates (back in December), an earlier Gingrich surge collapsed and was followed by his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he is to reverse this latest trend back toward Romney, he must prevail tonight.