Tonight’s Republican presidential debate on CNN was the last one before the Florida primary as well as the last one for almost a month. That made it critical for Newt Gingrich, the man whose candidacy has largely depended on success in debates to do well tonight. But instead of another triumph in which he was able to use attacks on the moderators and his rivals, Gingrich came out flat. While there is little doubt Rick Santorum did the best of any of the candidates tonight and Ron Paul had a few good jokes, the real winner was Mitt Romney, who attacked Gingrich relentlessly and with good effect.
Gingrich’s poor performance not only undermines his argument that he would trounce Barack Obama in debates but also squandered what might be his last chance to turn the momentum of the race around. Gingrich’s usual trick of turning on the moderator flopped. So did his attacks on Romney. Along with Gingrich, Romney took a pounding from Santorum but even that worked to his benefit. Any votes Santorum gains in Florida will be at Gingrich’s expense. The Jacksonville debate may have sealed Gingrich’s fate in Florida and perhaps the entire race.
Romney came out strong, taking Gingrich to task for his attacks on him and then followed up by taking the former speaker to task on his connection with Freddie Mac. Gingrich then attempted to deflect a Wolf Blitzer question about his attacks on Romney’s finances back on the moderator. But, unfortunately for Gingrich, Blitzer would have none of it. The result was that he was made to look foolish while Romney took him further to task. That was a pattern that repeated itself throughout the evening as Gingrich missed opportunities to make points at his rival’s expense and never was able to seize a moment and get the boisterous crowd behind him. Instead, it was Romney who got more applause for his aggressive focus on Gingrich’s weak points, including his latest “grandiose” idea: a moon colony plan that he denounced as a blatant pander.
Yet, while the first hour looked to be a runaway for Romney, Santorum’s ability to turn the issue of his Massachusetts health care bill on him changed the dynamic of the event. From then on, it was Santorum who was more or less in charge, including a stirring statement about the connection between faith and the rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.
But despite his good showing, Santorum has little chance in Florida. He did not even have the money to buy television ads in Florida and has decided not to stay in the state on Tuesday night to await the primary results. That means any strength he gains there in the last days as a result of his powerful debate showings will merely be conservative votes taken away from a fading Gingrich. Indeed, on the basis of this night at least, it was clear that the best “not Romney” on the stage was Santorum, not Gingrich.
While Romney was put back on his heels by Santorum’s withering scolding about his health care bill, his performance was still, along with Monday’s debate in Tampa, a reversal of previous debates in which he had been battered by Gingrich. Instead, it was the former speaker who was constantly forced on the defensive. Having come into the hall needing a knockout to get back on top in Florida, Gingrich found himself being clearly bested on points. While the volatility of the GOP race is such that it is perilous to make predictions, after this debacle it’s hard to see how Gingrich prevents a Romney win in Florida next Tuesday. After today, the talk of Romney’s inevitability, which had disappeared in the days since South Carolina, may resume.