Hours after the South Carolina primary last Saturday, GOP presidential candidates moved troops to the Sunshine State for the first debate leading up to Florida’s January 31st primary.
The final four brought their “A-game,” but the stars of the show were clearly Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Following Romney’s brutal defeat in South Carolina, the Massachusetts governor had the former speaker firmly in his sights and went on the attack early. But somewhere between Charleston and Tampa, Gingrich seemed to have re-discovered his game face, appealing to Florida’s seniors by coming on strong in defense of Medicare and Medicaid and choosing not to take Romney’s bait. Instead, he waved off the governor’s repeated attempts to discredit him as being “typical” of Romney and a “waste of time.”
There was no surprise that Romney’s strategy was to pound home the characterization of Gingrich as a Washington lobbyist for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He repeatedly called him an “influence peddler” “who was ousted by his own people.” Gingrich called Romney’s attacks “the worst kind of trivial politics,” sparking what turned the debate between four candidates into “The Newt and Mitt Show.” The two exchanged accusations and rebuttals for an entire segment and commanded the room until a commercial break forced the otherwise silent moderator to break it off. “And when we return,” said NBC’s Brian Williams, “we will invite the others to join the discussion.”
Santorum tried to keep a hand in the game and build on his Iowa momentum by presenting himself as a “very clear contrast” to the “two front-runners.” In his typical fashion, Romney looked on with that familiar smug grin as though he’s just biding his time until the grown-ups can return to the real conversation. Santorum actually came across well when he had the chance, but even Ron Paul offered a slap by dismissing the Iowa caucus as an irrelevant straw vote when everyone knows their delegates haven’t even been picked yet.
When Gingrich did go on the attack, he led with Romney’s elusive tax returns and the of his personal empire via Bain Capital, but Romney quickly countered that he would “not apologize” for his earned success, citing Staples as a prime example of a company he helped start which led to the creation of 90,000 jobs.
Santorum threw a punch at both Gingrich and Romney by saying, “If you guys believe in capitalism so much, then why did you support the bailout of Wall Street?” Then he brought it home by blaming the bailout for the protracted recession in Florida (Ah – well played, young apprentice).
Even so, spectators were sparing in their applause and no one really got that big home run sound bite that usually occurs. Florida’s continued high unemployment and foreclosure rates came up but weren’t addressed to the degree that many Florida voters might have liked.
As he often does, Ron Paul offered some insightful moments of clarity by assigning blame for the economic crisis on the Federal Reserve, TARP funding and general government power bloat.
Then the group played “nice” for a while, each pitching their views on a host of topics, taking the heat off of each other and focusing it on Obama. The candidates agreed on the needed repeal of Dodd-Frank, offered opinions on Iran and answered hypotheticals as to what each would do as president if Castro finally died.
Coming out of Florida’s first of two pre-primary debates, the main message is that for the moment Gingrich and Romney are the front-runners to catch. That’s quite a coup for Gingrich, considering the Romney is outspending him by tens of millions of dollars in the Sunshine State.
The next debate is scheduled for this Thursday, January 26th at 8p.m. Eastern time on CNN.