Jacksonville, Fla., and CNN put on one of the best debates of the GOP presidential race on Thursday night — a debate that is sure to have an effect on Tuesday’s all-important Florida primary.
The Fix was live-chatting all night, but we also thought we’d pass along our thoughts on the debate, in the form — naturally — of winners and losers.
* Mitt Romney: The obvious one, yes. It wasn’t all good for the former Massachusetts governor, but given how lackluster Newt Gingrich’s performance was, it’s hard not to call this anything but a win for Romney, who wins whenever Gingrich fails.
In fact, Romney slipped up a few times. He again said rather tone-deafly that he would “fire” somebody who told him a moon colony was a good idea in tough economic times, he incorrectly stated that one of his ads wasn’t his ad, and he suggested to Rick Santorum that President Obama’s health care bill wasn’t something to get angry about (we think many Republicans are pretty openly angry about it).
And in none of these three cases did Romney’s opponents — and particularly Gingrich — make him pay for it.
Truth be told, there were openings for Gingrich; he just didn’t take advantage of them.
* Moderators: Gingrich tried to return to his days of ragging on debate moderators, but it went poorly.
At one point, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich whether he was happy with Romney’s disclosure of some of his tax returns, and Gingrich recoiled at the question.
“This is a nonsense question,” he said.
That would have been fine, except that Gingrich himself has pushed the issue for the past week-plus. And Romney called him on it.
Gingrich argues: “I’m perfectly happy to say that in an interview on some TV show, but this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.”
Romney’s on-key response: “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?
Blitzer: 1. Gingrich: 0.
* Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator isn’t being given much of a chance given his poor showing so far in Florida, but he had a good night Thursday.
Santorum landed the most effective blows of the night on Romney, targeting him on the health care bill he signed as governor of Massachusetts, and had quality answers when asked about immigration, religion, and his wife.
Will it rocket Santorum back to frontrunner status? No. But will it help him reclaim some lost momentum? Yes.
* The elderly: Romney made sure to clarify that his “self-deportation” policy didn’t target grandmothers, and Rep. Ron Paul, at 76 years old, challenged each of his opponents to a 25-mile bike ride to prove his physical health.
Power to the seniors, indeed.
* Gingrich: For the second straight debate, Gingrich was just plain off his game.
Blitzer goaded Gingrich twice early on to engage Romney on immigration, and Gingrich declined both times. When Blitzer finally got the former House speaker to reiterate his claim that Romney was anti-immigrant, Romney pounced on it and offered an impassioned and broad defense of his ties to the Hispanic community.
It set the tone for a debate in which Gingrich looked less prepared and never really recovered.
* Applause bans: One thing we can all agree on — applause makes for a more interesting debate. Thursday’s debate was just much better than Monday’s for this simple reason.
While the room might be a little biased towards one candidate or another, it has generally been a pretty good gage of when the candidates have made good points that please the base and when they have fallen short.
In fact, the audience seems to have taken to expressing disapproval as well, which makes things even more interesting.
New rule for all future debates: No applause bans.
* Callista Gingrich: We suspect Newt may have had some explaining to do after the debate, given that he passed on a chance to say why his wife, Callista, would be the best First Lady.
“I would rather just to talk about why I like Callista, and why I’d like her to be First Lady, but she’s not necessarily in any way better,” Gingrich said.
We know he was trying to be gracious, but really!? The guy who has spent the last year arguing that he’s the best candidate won’t say that his wife would be the best First Lady?
Blind trust fact-check: The National Journal looks into Romney’s claim that his Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac investments are in a blind trust and finds it lacking.
The $250,001 and $500,000 Romney owned in a mutual fund that invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt notes — what Gingrich pressed him on — were not in a blind trust.
Moreover, Romney was a frequent critic of blind trusts in his 1994 campaign against Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
“The blind trust is an age-old ruse. You give a blind trust rules,” he told the Boston Globe at the time.
Gingrich apparently wasn’t armed with that quote Thursday.
Obama pushes back on Gingrich: In an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer aired Thursday, Obama took an aggressive new campaign tone.
Asked “how much” he wanted a second term, Obama responded, “Badly, because I think the country needs it.”
Obama also pushed back on Gingrich’s oft-repeated “food stamp president line,” saying, “I don’t put people on food stamps. People become eligible for food stamps. Second of all, the initial expansion of food-stamp eligibility happened under my Republican predecessor, not under me. No. 3, when you have a disastrous economic crash that results in eight million people losing their jobs, more people are going to need more support from government.”
Gingrich finally gets some support from his former House colleagues: namely, convicted former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.).
A Gingrich spokesman gets into it with a Romney-supporting member of Congress.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (D-Fla.), despite backing Romney, doesn’t like Romney’s term “self-deportation.”
The American Enterprise Institute likens the results of Romney’s health care bill to Obama’s.
Republican businessman Bill Maloney is officially in for another run against West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D).
“Tardy Gingrich strains his warm-up acts” — Trip Gabriel, New York Times
“Senate GOP Not United on Nominations” — Humberto Sanchez, Roll Call
“Gingrich Stuck to Caustic Path in Ethics Battles” — Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times