Romney, seeking to regain the offensive after a loss in the South Carolina primary on Saturday that broke the GOP race open, adopted a far different demeanor than he displayed during two lackluster debates last week. In Monday’s forum, he kept the pressure on Gingrich, particularly in the early stages, and he tried to raise doubts about his opponent’s ability to lead the party.
“You spent now 15 years in Washington on K Street,” Romney said about the former speaker’s years after he left Congress. “And this is a real problem, if we’re going to nominate someone who not only had a record of great distress as the speaker but that has worked for 15 years lobbying.”
Gingrich, whose pugnacious debating style helped propel him to victory in South Carolina, was far more subdued as he parried Romney’s attacks. He accused the former governor of getting his facts wrong and making distorted charges, and he predicted that the voters would reject such politics.
Gingrich protested when Romney said the former speaker had lobbied members of Congress over legislation to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. “You just jumped a long way over here, friend,” he said sarcastically. “Let me be very clear, because I understand your technique. . . . It’s not going to work very well, because the American people see through it.”
The debate came at a critical time in the Republican presidential race, with Romney’s candidacy suddenly at risk and with Gingrich unexpectedly in strong contention for the party nomination.
The Fix rated the winners and losers from Monday’s debate. Here is a selection:
* Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania Senator is in a very tough spot in the race. He’s not part of the battle for frontrunner status — that’s between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — nor does he have the loyal following of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
But if Santorum is in a political no man’s land, he didn’t show it last night. While he got far less time to speak than either Romney or Gingrich — a right decision by moderator Brian Williams given their relative standing in the polls — Santorum made the most with what he had.
As he had done in the debates last week, Santorum repeatedly attempted to lump Gingrich and Romney together as Obama-lite while presenting himself as the genuine conservative article.
In his best answer of the night — and the best overall answer from any candidate all night — Santorum detailed the apostasies of Gingrich and Romney on health care and climate change before adding: “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand.”