I agree with Jonathan’s assessment of last night’s GOP debate. The only important part of the debate occurred in the first half-hour, when Mitt Romney aggressively prosecuted his case against Newt Gingrich. Gingrich clearly decided he didn’t want a confrontation, probably assuming that doing so would endanger his lead in Florida. The former speaker wanted to float above it all, as best he could, in hopes of selling to the public the narrative of a “new” Newt – a candidate calm, disciplined, and in control of himself.
I’m not sure that strategy is a particularly good one. Gingrich tried that once before, in Iowa, and finished in fourth place after leading by double digits in December. And last week Romney tried the same approach, trying to keep his attacks focused on President Obama even as Romney’s opponents went after him hammer and tong.
Most commentators seem to think Romney bested Gingrich last night. If so, the win wasn’t by a decisive margin, and there were no dramatic moments that matched what Gingrich did twice last week in South Carolina. It certainly won’t change the trajectory of the race in Florida like last week’s debates changed the trajectory of the race in South Carolina. But it may not have to.
The question for the Romney campaign is whether the former Massachusetts governor’s line of attack in the debate, combined with very tough ads being run in Florida, will raise substantial doubts about Gingrich’s public character. My hunch is that what Romney achieved last night is he stopped the bleeding and regained some balance. The polls will probably close a bit in Florida during the next few days. As a result I’d be surprised if, during Thursday’s debate, Gingrich is as passive in the face of Romney’s attacks as he was last night. Gingrich is no fool; he must know that being on the defensive on ethics charges isn’t where he wants to be.
So far in this campaign Romney and Gingrich have taken turns being the aggressor against the other. What will be fascinating to watch is if and when they decide, in the same debate, to go after one another hard, butting heads like a couple of rams. I’d lay some pretty good odds on such a collision happening soon, meaning as early as Thursday night in Jacksonville.