The Tampa Bay Republican debate on Monday night provided some early fireworks, with Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney clashing early on their respective records and conservative resumes. As Dan Balz and Rosalind Helderman reported:

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich clashed sharply and repeatedly in a Republican presidential debate here Monday night, with the former Massachusetts governor attacking the former House speaker as a failed leader, a K Street influence peddler and a candidate who would put the party at risk in the general election.

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.”

It remains to be seen whether Santorum’s strong debate can or will matter since the race is rapidly shaping up as a fight between Gingrich and Romney. But Santorum did everything he could Monday night to stay relevant.

* Mitt Romney: Was Romney as polished and smooth as he has been in most of the other debates? Nope. But he had a very different mission on Monday night than in the past gatherings — he was set on landing a series of body blows to Gingrich that will eventually, Romney and his team hope, weaken the former House Speaker.

It was a workmanlike performance from Romney; he hammered away at Gingrich’s record as speaker (he said “resign in disgrace” three times in as many minutes) and sought to force Gingrich on the defensive about what exactly he had done to earn $1.6 million from Freddie Mac.

There was no knockout blow. That much is true. But for a guy who struggled badly — both in this campaign and his 2008 race — to go on attack, Romney handled himself well and, without question, softened Gingrich up some for the race to come.

One weak spot worth noting: Romney was, again, somewhat shaky on his tax returns answer — repeatedly highlighting that he had paid all of the taxes he was “legally” obligated to pay. Um, ok.

* Floridians: Most of these debates have been set in early voting states but have rarely spent much time on the actual issues of import to voters in those states. Not so during Monday night’s debate.

Illegal immigration, environmental regulations, sugar, the space program and even Terri Schiavo(!) came up for discussion, forcing the candidates to stretch beyond their typical talking points and make their case for why they are the best fit for Florida specifically.

While the extended sugar debate was a little much — more on that below — we thoroughly enjoyed some state-specific questions, particularly from the one and only Adam Smith of the Tampa Times.

* The first 15 minutes: Like the CNN debate last Thursday, the first 15 minutes of Monday’s night set-to was where all the excitement happened. Romney repeatedly attacked Gingrich while the former House Speaker seemingly fought against himself to appear calm and unflappable.

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