With the political world — or at least former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — still reeling from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s convincing win in South Carolina, the four men still competing for the Republican presidential nomination will take the stage in Tampa tonight for their 17th debate.
Until then, you can either stare at the clock waiting for the moment to arrive or read our preview of the best storylines to keep an eye on tonight. We recommend the latter option.
* Mitt on the attack: With the exception of the early days of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy — remember when that was a thing? — Romney has never had to forcefully take the fight to anyone in these debates.
Romney, largely, took a pass on attacking Gingrich in the two debates last week — he went as far to say the one thing he would do over in the campaign was to talk less about his opponents and more about President Obama. His campaign believes that was a major tactical mistake and one they won’t repeat in the runup to the Florida primary in eight days.
Romney is out with a new ad in Florida that raises questions about the $1.6 million Gingrich was paid by Freddie Mac and, in a press conference in the state today, he suggested that the former Speaker might be guilty of “potentially wrongful activity of some kind”.
Given that as context, it’s hard to imagine that Romney doesn’t go on attack tonight. But the former Massachusetts governor has never been entirely comfortable in the attack dog role — remember his awkward debate performances in 2008 as he tried to hammer Arizona Sen. John McCain? — and needs to ensure not just that he hits Newt but that he comes out of the exchanges less bloodied than his opponent.
* Newt’s frontrunning problem: Ever have a friend who just couldn’t deal with success and eventually wound up sabotaging themselves?
Many people who know Gingrich well — including those who admire his political prowess — describe the former House Speaker in just those terms.
Gingrich spearheaded the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 only to be chased out of office by his colleagues four years later. In this race, he surged into the lead in the month leading up to Iowa only to collapse into a fourth place finish in the state.
Gingrich is clearly most comfortable in the role of underestimated rabble-rouser, the guy who says the things no one else in politics is willing to say. (Another politician like that is McCain, who struggled as a favorite in 2008 and only bounced back to win the nomination when he became the underdog again.)
Gingrich’s struggle to both appear presidential while also staying true to the shake-up-the-system rhetoric that got him to where he is in the race was on display in his South Carolina victory speech. At the start, he was sober and restrained but by the end of the address he was throwing out “Saul Alinsky” references by the bushelful.
Gingrich needs to find a better balance in tonight’s debate.
* WWRSD (What Will Rick Santorum Do): The man who won the Iowa caucuses — albeit belatedly — now feels like an afterthought in the race.
Despite finishing a distant third in South Carolina, however, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum appears to be moving ahead with his campaign in Florida.
While it’s tough to see an ultimate path to victory for Santorum, he is almost certainly betting that Gingrich’s long history of struggling with success (see above) will re-emerge, leaving a spot for (another) conservative alternative to Romney.
If that is Santorum’s strategy in the race — and we can’t imagine he has another one — then the former Pennsylvania senator’s approach to tonight’s debate should be to hammer away at Gingrich in hopes of inducing him into a slip-up.
Of course, Santorum is closer ideologically and personally to Gingrich, facts that may mitigate an all-out assault on the former House Speaker.
But, if Santorum is smart, he should focus his fire on Gingrich, a dynamic that could strengthen Romney’s attacks on the former Speaker.
* Foreclosure focus: While the glut of home foreclosures has been a topic in other debates, it could well get a significantly broader airing tonight.
Not only will Romney be keen to talk about it — and tie it to Gingrich’s work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac — but it’s an absolutely critical issue in the vote-rich I-4 corridor that runs from Tampa in the east to Orlando in the west. (As we noted in our Florida primary primer, 50 percent of the Republican primary vote will come from the Orlando and Tampa media markets.)
That means that proving yourself as the best person to solve — or at least better address — the foreclosure crisis is hugely important in winning not only tonight’s debate but the Florida primary.
* Primetime!: This is the first debate that will be broadcast during primetime on a weeknight. (ABC has put its debate on weekend nights, much to the chagrin of the Fix’s desire to hang with Mrs. Fix and Fix Jr.)
Unless and until they wind up as their party’s nominee, none of the four candidates will ever speak to as large a television audience as will watch tonight.
That means that the stakes are raised even higher tonight than in debates past — a remarkable thing given how decisive exit polling suggests the debates were to Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina.