The PJ Tatler

Debate Score: Lots of Heat, Little Sunshine in Florida's Republican Debate

Tonight’s debate carried high stakes, with 50 delegates on the line in winner-take-all Florida as the four remaining GOP presidential contenders squared off in Jacksonville. It was their fourth debate in less than two weeks across two states. They all seemed a bit tired as the event kicked off.

The debate of late in Florida’s primary has devolved to name-calling between Romney and Gingrich, and about 16 minutes in, Gingrich called Romney “the most anti-immigrant candidate,” using the language of the left to conflate legal and illegal immigration. Romney reminded Gingrich and the audience that Gingrich had had to pull down an ad in Florida making that allegation. Romney showed fire in disputing Gingrich’s claim, also winning on the facts, and earned a pair of ovations. For anyone who thinks Gingrich will consistently take the fight to the left, this exchange should serve as a warning that he may adopt the language and the tactics of the left when he believes it suits him.

Just before the half hour mark, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul sparred over US foreign policy in South and Central America. Paul called for trade with Cuba, which is a reasonable position to take, but then blamed the US for “choosing dictators” and other assorted crimes in the region. As usual, he offered no understanding of US foreign policy or the roles our enemies have played, other than that what America does is bad and he would do something differently. Santorum won the round by calling out the Obama foreign policy of disrespecting pro-US countries like Honduras and Colombia while sidling up to Venezuela and Cuba.

Santorum won the largest and probably most heartfelt applause of the entire debate season, which seems to have run on longer than The Simpsons now, when he called for both Romney and Gingrich to knock off the petty personal politics and focus on the real issues.

After the break, a squabble between Gingrich and Romney resulted in the latter saying something he should have said a long time ago, with as much force as he said it tonight: “I’m proud of being successful.” This is America. He should be, and we should be proud to have a country where anyone can play by the rules and succeed, as Mitt Romney seems to have done.

Some good laugh lines (Ron Paul: “I don’t want to go to the moon but we should send some politicians there”) and an odd debate about a lunar colony later, Romney ripped Gingrich for going state to state and making grand promises to the voters in each state to pay for their pet projects. His enthusiam for an American lunar colony, Romney suggested, is one more of those locally-focused promises. The words “earmarks” and “pandering” didn’t come up, but perhaps they should have. My question: If we set the moon on the course to statehood, will it have Sooners? Should we call them Mooners?

The above paragraph was no less frivolous than much of the debate.

Meanwhile back on this planet, Ron Paul finished the segment by calling out Gingrich on his claims to have balanced the budget, when the deficit actually went up during the years in question. In fact, Paul probably had his best debate so far, showing a wry sense of humor while he stayed away from much discussion of foreign policy. Too bad about those people and ideas he keeps associating with when he thinks no one is looking.

During a discussion of RomneyCare and ObamaCare, Santorum hammered at Romney for the Massachusetts plan, while Romney made what was probably the best defense I’ve heard of his state’s plan to date. It’s not a plan I would support, but Romney at least cast it as being free market friendly while requiring responsibility from the state’s citizens. Though Santorum may have been more right than wrong on the facts, and later analyses may bear that out, Romney won the exchange in tone and in contrasting his plan with ObamaCare, which he again promised to repeal. Then Paul came along, declared everyone else wrong, earned a laugh and stole the debate again. Wolf Blitzer wasted everyone’s time with a question to each candidate to explain why their wife would make the best First Lady. The question was a clear set-up to remind the world, with no subtlety at all, of Gingrich’s marital history. This…is CNN. Santorum did manage to fumble the gimme a bit by going on way too long, though.

In terms of a debate score, Ron Paul probably won tonight despite the fact that he isn’t running in Florida and many of his beliefs about America and the world belong in the other party, and some of them belong in another century. He was feisty and funny and put a fine gloss on his foreign policy when he had to and was as articulate in assailing federal spending as ever. Romney was presidential and authoritative when he and Gingrich weren’t arguing, and he scored a couple of real hits on Gingrich’s recent charges. Gingrich also scored a hit when he surprised Romney about some inflammatory language regarding Gingrich in one of his campaign’s radio ads. Santorum was very solid on foreign policy, but flashed angry too often. Passion and strong beliefs tend to be rewarded in debates, but showing a temper tends to cost hard-earned ground.

And this debate probably changed nothing.