The Kumbaya debate

at 07:50 AM ET, 12/16/2011

Anyone who has watched the increasingly nasty back and forth between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich this week had to be surprised to watch the debate Thursday night.

Aside from Gingrich making an off-hand reference to Romney having called him “zany,” the debate in Sioux City, Iowa, featured basically no engagement between the two candidates and no effort from Romney to go after the Iowa frontrunner. Compared to earlier this week, it was a veritable love fest.
Republican presidential candidate and former House speaker Newt Gingrich listens to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during the Republican Party presidential candidates debate in Sioux City, Iowa on Thursday (REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool)

The question, then, is why.

A few theories:

1) Romney was happy to take a draw and fight their battle elsewhere. If the debates have shown us anything so far, it’s that it’s hard to out-debate Gingrich. He’s got a smart/effective response for basically everything that’s thrown at him; just look at his reference to Thomas Jefferson when Fox moderator Megyn Kelly pushed him Thursday on his plan to abolish the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

2) Romney knows that other people will do his dirty work for him. While he and Gingrich got along famously Thursday, many of the other candidates on the stage — particularly Rep. Michele Bachmann — were taking their shots at the new frontrunner. On top of that, Romney’s got a super PAC supporting his candidacy that is spending millions on his behalf in Iowa and is now going up with $300,000 worth of ads in Florida (see below).

We live in a new world, where there are many more players on the field than there used to be. And as long as the pro-Romney super PAC and other candidates — not to mention the National Review — can call into question Gingrich’s record with plenty of oomph, why should Romney get his hands dirty?

3) Romney thinks Gingrich is already fading. Nate Silver at the New York Times has already started making the case the Gingrich’s trajectory in Iowa is not good, and we here at The Fix have argued that Gingrich is headed in the wrong direction among the general electorate as well. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Romney campaign’s attacks on Gingrich seemed to stop just as polling cast some serious doubt on the former House speaker’s future in the race.

On top of that, both House Speaker John Boehner and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (see below) are shying from Gingrich and could be paving the way for neutral Republicans to start speaking out against Gingrich being their nominee. If Romney’s people believe a broad anybody-but-Gingrich effort is in the offing, better to step aside and let it happen.

4) Romney realizes this race will be won on the trail. Believe it or not, this was the last debate before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Whatever traction Romney got in debates — if indeed there was any to be gained — was likely to be momentary and overshadowed in the weeks ahead. With the pre-Iowa debates now over, Romney may have recognized that this is a campaign that’s about operation now, and better to leave it up to what he hopes is a superior campaign.

Romney super PAC going up in Florida: The Fix has learned that the super PAC supporting Romney is going up with a $300,000 ad buy in Florida, opening another front in its campaign against Gingrich.

Restore Our Future is running the same ad it has run in Iowa — suggesting President Obama’s team wants to run against Gingrich — in all Florida markets except Miami and West Palm Beach.

Florida’s primary is fourth in line, behind Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and promises to be a key battleground if the race stretches beyond those three states, particularly if Gingrich can win Iowa and South Carolina and Romney takes New Hampshire, as current polling suggests.

Branstad backs away from Gingrich: Branstad on Thursday questioned whether Gingrich has the right qualities to be president, making him arguably the highest-profile neutral Republican to cast doubt on Gingrich’s fitness for office.

“Whether he has the discipline and the focus, I don’t know,” Branstad said in an interview with AP.

It’s not full-throated criticism, but it’s another incremental step toward the GOP establishment moving to undercut Gingrich’s candidacy.

On Wednesday, Boehner wouldn’t say whether Gingrich would be a good president.

Fixbits:

Perry goes up with an Iowa ad hitting Gingrich and Romney on their economic records. Meanwhile, Romney indeed seems content to let others attack Gingrich on the airwaves, launching a positive ad on economic issues.

Gingrich returns the favor, saying he regrets attacking Romney’s record at Bain Capital.

A new Brown University poll in Rhode Island shows Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) and Rep. David Cicilline (D) both struggling, with less than 30 percent of people saying they are doing either “excellent” or “good” jobs.

A federal court has signed off on Democrats’ aggressive redistricting map in Illinois, turning aside a GOP challenge. The map could lead Democrats to gain several seats.

EMILY’s List endorses four: Minnesota state Sen. Tarryl Clark, former Connecticut state representative Elizabeth Esty, Rep. Betty Sutton (Ohio) and former congresswoman Dina Titus (Nev.). Clark is running against Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), and Esty is running for Senate candidate Rep. Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) open seat.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) says Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Democrats.

Must-reads:

Gingrich momentum slows, polls suggest” — Nate Silver, New York Times

Huckabee gets star treatment on return to Iowa” — Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

Read more on PostPolitics.com

Gingrich on the defensive in Iowa debate

The Fix: Winners, losers of Iowa GOP debate

Fact checking the GOP debate in Iowa

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