NBC’s decision to forbid the studio audience from applauding, plus Brian Williams’ evident fear of being flayed alive on stage by either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, dictated that this debate would be far less energetic than the South Carolina episodes. But no one forced Williams to conduct the entire first half hour without ever asking a single policy question. He asked questions about the candidates’ records and how each has lately characterized the others’, and that produced a slow but argumentative start.
Mitt Romney fired off a decent salvo at about the half hour mark, making a clear and understandable case that Gingrich engaged in lobbying when he was paid $25,000 a month to be Freddie Mac’s “historian.” Romney also won a confession out of Gingrich — that he hired a lobbying expert to train his staff so they would know where the line was — but did not follow up on it. His ad makers surely will in the next few days. Gingrich had a painful three seconds of silence but managed to escape it without a real gaffe.
The rest of the debate was mostly a low-key rehash of previous debates. Ron Paul believes every foreign policy act taken by the United States in defense of her interests constitutes an “act of war” against another country, while never recognizing that other countries’ actions might rise to the level of acts of war against us. He fails to understand what fuels attacks like the one in Nigeria last week. Rick Santorum was very strong on Iran, and made a good point later in the debate about the fact that illegal aliens continually break U.S. laws by staying here illegally. Both Romney and Gingrich would sign versions of the DREAM Act at the national level, stands which will be very unpopular with the Republican base. NBC’s and the local reporters’ questions provided few opportunities to make strong cases against President Obama, but the candidates tended to create those opportunities where they could. The most interesting exchange probably came as the network was fading to black at the 90 minute mark and Gingrich could be seen approaching Romney, using both hands to emphasize some point that, judging by his body language, he felt was very important. But none of us watching on TV got to hear a word of it. We got a question about Terry Schiavo but not about the TSA, or about Fast and Furious. Santorum got off a nice riff late, that “when push came to shove” on accepting liberal dogma and policies, at times both Romney and Gingrich got pushed: Romney on cap and trade, Gingrich on that business on the couch with Nancy Pelosi.
During the debate, the Romney and Gingrich camps traded fire in press releases, thrusting new charges and parrying away old ones or ones made afresh in the debate. The band played on, mostly in NBC’s repetitive promos for its musical shows. The audience yawned. The game did not change. Intrade started the night with Newt Gingrich a weak favorite to win Florida’s primary, and ended the night in the same position.
Romney won mainly because, despite Gingrich showing an unusual and believable humility when asked what scares him about the presidency late in the debate, Romney showed a fire to fight that he had not shown in a debate yet, and because he framed the “Washington insider and influence peddler” charge against Gingrich in a way that is clear and may provide a painful path of inquiry for Gingrich as the primary vote nears. Florida’s is a closed primary. However it votes will provide a solid read on the viability of all four remaining candidates going forward.