Voters in Florida will reveal just how weakened a candidate Romney has become. One loss to Gingrich, in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, was a setback. A second could be crippling. Romney’s sudden pivot since that defeat shows just how much he understands that he has little time to reverse Gingrich’s momentum and reestablish himself as the front-runner for the nomination.
The past two days have encapsulated everything about Romney’s hurry-up strategy. A candidate who has avoided Sunday talk shows appeared on “Fox News Sunday” the morning after his double-digit loss and said that he would release his tax returns. He acknowledged that he should have done so earlier. He deserves no praise for being blind to the political realities for weeks, nor for finally recognizing the obvious.
Romney arrived in Florida later Sunday with rhetoric sharpened by defeat. He went after Gingrich with tough new language, although the video of the debate shows a candidate who does not take easily to the role of attack dog. He is too gentlemanly for that.
On Monday morning, Romney hurled the kitchen sink at his rival. The across-the-board attacks were an effort to put everything negative about Gingrich into the discussion as the voters in Florida began to pay close attention.
Romney challenged Gingrich over his tenure as House speaker, calling it a failure. He reminded voters that his rival had been reprimanded by his House colleagues for ethics transgressions. He raised questions about Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac and about his dozen or so years as a Washington consultant who made himself wealthy by, as Romney put it, peddling influence.
It all came together on Monday night in the first third of the 90-minute debate sponsored by NBC News with the National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times. NBC anchor Brian Williams barely had to prod Romney to go on the attack. At every turn, with every question, after every Gingrich response, Romney pressed his case relentlessly.
There have been flashes of this Romney in the past, most notably when Texas Gov. Rick Perry first appeared at a debate as the rising candidate in the race. That was at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California in September, and Romney came prepared to challenge on Social Security the man his campaign feared. The difference on Monday night was that Romney realized that his candidacy is truly at risk.
He has proved peevish when attacked in debates, impatient with his rivals and, at times, looking to the moderator for help to shut down an uncomfortable encounter. On Monday night, he sought to avoid being defensive by staying on the offense through critical exchanges. With every Gingrich parry came a Romney riposte.