Friday, January 27, 2012

Jacksonville GOP debate: Winners and losers

In the last debate before the Florida GOP primary, Mitt Romney verbally thrashed Newt Gingrich last night in Jacksonville, stunning the former House speaker and reclaiming the momentum Gingrich had grabbed in South Carolina.

It was the kind of performance a fretted Republican establishment had been wondering if Romney could deliver, and it came just at the right time for his campaign. Polls late this week showed that Republican pushback against a potential Gingrich nomination had stunted his surge in Florida, just as it did in Iowa. (The most recent example: A Quinnipiac poll this morning shows Romney beating Gingrich 38-29 after leading by two percentage points just two days ago.)

But instead of playing it safe, Romney pounced on Gingrich from the beginning, calling Gingrich's remarks on Romney being anti-immigrant "repulsive" and asking for an apology. Gingrich was clearly thrown by the aggressiveness, as he was when Romney invited Gingrich to back up his campaign trail snarkiness about Romney's money being in off-shore accounts. From then on, even when Romney gave Gingrich clear openings - and there were a few - Gingrich was hesitant, almost afraid of a possible counterpunch.

Romney had his stumbles, including telling Santorum that health care wasn't something to get so upset about, but he was just the right mix of combative and eloquent about policies and issues. For Republicans worried about Romney sharing a debate stage with President Barack Obama, it was an encouraging performance.

Santorum, again, had a good night, clearly contrasting his conservative cred against the others on the stage. He continues to seem too alarmist about foreign threats, and that shrillness is made even more stark by Ron Paul's grandfatherly dismissiveness about the dangers facing the U.S. Paul had another fine debate, perhaps his best, mixing charm with more precise explanations about the reduced role government should play in domestic and foreign policy.

Gingrich? Well, he was just flat after a week of attacking Romney on the trail. We'll see today how he tries to compensate.

The pundits' consensus: Romney had his best debate.

*Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post agrees that Romney was the clear winner, although he noted some tone-deafness when Romney said he would "fire" anyone who told him a moon colony was a good idea, as Gingrich has suggested. Gingrich, says Cillizza, looked less prepared and "was just plain off his game."

*'s Mark Halperin, who passes out grades after each debate, gives Romney ("sharp, commanding, wily") an A. Santorum ("still not dynamic enough") a B-, Gingrich ("unable to find his groove") a C-, and Paul ("failed to highlight his positions") a C-.

*The conservative Weekly Standard's John McCormack says that Romney and Santorum stood out - and that the pair provided the most substantial policy disagreements.

*The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn says that, as with candidate Obama in 2008, Romney has been made a better debater by his early poor showings.

-Peter St. Onge


Anonymous said...

Hey Pete - You still want to tell me how the Observer isn't pumping up this Occupy stuff? Front page articles for the last two days - "Breaking News" yesterday... Your editor is pushing to make this news for whatever reasons he has...which I'm sure are political.