For the first time in all of the debates, Newt Gingrich had to play serious defense tonight in Tampa. Mitt Romney seemed an entirely different candidate than the lackluster guy who appeared in last week’s two debates in South Carolina. Taking Gingrich on from the very beginning of this encounter, he attacked and attacked and attacked again. Gingrich, who seized control of last Thursday’s debate by attacking CNN moderator John King, was forced to reply over and over to Romney’s attacks. Romney set the agenda. Gingrich responded.
What surprised me was that Gingrich never even sought to find a way to turn things back on Romney, to force Romney to answer questions about his own record -- at Bain Capital, as governor or on anything else. It was as if Gingrich were running the old front-runner’s strategy that was once Romney’s trademark. He seemed more interested in responding quietly, looking reasonable, and calmly batting away attacks. Did this reflect overconfidence, a strategic choice to stand above the fray and look presidential, or surprise at Romney’s ferocity? We became accustomed over the last several debates to the idea of Gingrich owning the stage. He didn’t tonight.
Another surprise: Rick Santorum didn’t use the Romney-Gingrich bickering as an opportunity to lift himself above his foes. He might have said that the two of them had made a good case for why GOP voters should be looking for a third alternative.
Ron Paul gave a gutsy answer in opposing the Cuba embargo, given the views of Florida’s Cuban-American community. Or at least it would be gutsy if he actually had a chance of winning. I disagree with Paul on many questions, but there is a refreshing candor to him, a candor that comes easily to a candidate running on behalf of a worldview rather than to try to win office.
My hunch is that Romney helped himself by showing that he was no wimp when it came to debating, that if circumstances required him to change his approach, he would do it. A lot of Republican primary voters are looking for a tough guy, so the new Romney is more likely to appeal to them than the old one did. But the other way of looking at Romney’s switch to a wholly new posture was nicely captured tonight by Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano: “The point is that this was an angry Romney. A tough Romney. A defiant Romney. Which meant you could now add fighter to the list of personas he has tried on. Personally, I’d prefer to finally see an authentic Romney.”
What’s clear is that Romney knows he’s in trouble, and that he cannot afford to let Gingrich beat him in Florida. Gingrich should count on a lot more of what he saw at the beginning of tonight’s debate.