After watching the debate Thursday night, I had one question: Did anyone see Newt Gingrich? Have police put out an APB on his whereabouts because he may have been on stage last night but that doesn’t mean that he was there.
The Gingrich that conservatives have come to know and love at these debates didn’t show up. He had a few small moments but you could tell that he is struggling between going on the attack and playing Mr. Nice guy. It’s like he is his own debate consultant telling himself to stay positive and not let Romney get under his skin so he doesn’t come across as angry. It’s not working.
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The magic of Gingrich has been to let loose and let the chips fall where they may. But now, with so much more riding on the outcome of these debates it seems like he’s trying to pick and choose his spots rather than just being Newt. That’s what got him in the final four in the first place.
The fact that he originally chose not to go after Romney on the Swiss bank accounts issue was a moment of weakness for Gingrich. You can’t rail on Romney on the trail and then come up lame on the debate stage. Furthermore, he made Romney look even better because it gave Romney a chance to essentially say, “Man up” and don’t run and hide.
Nothing was really working for Gingrich last night. Even when he tried to play the liberal media card against Wolf Blitzer (suggesting that the moderator shouldn’t be asking questions about transparency and tax returns) Blitzer threw it back at Newt by telling him that Gingrich was the one to bring it up so it’s fair game. Good point.
Additionally, Gingrich even tried calling for a “truce” last night which suggests to me that he’d rather not talk about Romney’s finances as long as Romney stops talking about his involvement with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For Newt that tradeoff would probably be a plus at this point.
The other thing I noticed was that Gingrich always lets Romney finish his answers which may earn him points for politeness but when you are being bombarded time after time with a kitchen sink full of opposition research you can’t afford to let him rattle each one of those items off in 30 or 60 second chunks. It begs for interrupting but Gingrich doesn’t go there. Instead, he collects his thoughts and then tends to give some sort of generic intellectual point about Romney’s criticism.
In short, Gingrich is at times morphing into FOX News analyst rather than fighting back hard against Romney. Newt wins when he fires up conservatives on the issues. That’s his strong suit and Romney can’t match him in passion and rhetoric. But Gingrich loses when he has to defend himself against the barrage of criticism coming his way and makes it even worse for himself when he doesn’t offer strong rebuttals.
These last two debates in Florida have shown us that Mitt Romney is up for the fight. His all but secure nomination has been severely challenged by Gingrich and instead of shrinking, Romney has instead shown an intense spark. In the past Romney’s debate performances were always solid but lacked oomph.
Not anymore. What we are witnessing is the “4th Quarter Romney” who is bringing his “A game” when it matters most. That should give conservatives more confidence that he’ll be better able to deal with President Obama in the fall if he makes it that far.
My sense here is we’ll see an uptick for Romney in the polls down in Florida after this debate. Gingrich can win Florida, but he’ll need major backing from evangelicals and the Tea Party to do it. However, Rick Santorum was again impressive last night. He’s establishing himself as the credible alternative to Romney or Gingrich. His best hope is that Gingrich implodes and the base stays lukewarm on Romney.