Hot off of a double-digit win in South Carolina, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped into a Florida debate ring on Monday night as the new heavyweight front-runner in the presidential contest and managed to bob and weave his way through a flurry of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s best punches.
“Romney went for the jugular, and it didn’t work,” declared Democratic pollster Doug Schoen immediately following the debate. “Newt Gingrich was cool, calm, and collected. The momentum was with Newt Gingrich going into the debate. It’s still with Newt Gingrich. It’s going to be a Pier 6 brawl from now until next Tuesday.”
The 68-year-old Gingrich showed no signs of fatigue, as some observers speculated he might following an intense weekend schedule in which he gained an impressive 40-28 percent victory over Romney in Saturday’s first-in-the-South primary.
“Newt Gingrich took every shot that Mitt Romney could land and he walked off unbowed and seemingly unaffected,” Schoen said. “In South Carolina, Romney was the focus of attention. Here, the focus of attention was Newt Gingrich. But I think Newt Gingrich managed to dodge all the bullets tonight. Tonight made it clear the new front-runner is Newt Gingrich.”
Republican strategist Bradley Blakeman tells Newsmax that, although he saw no clear winner in the debate, he thought Romney managed to reassert himself in the mix and regain his debate footing after bad stumbles in South Carolina.
“If he did as bad tonight as he did last week, he’d really be in bad shape,” said Blakeman, a Newsmax contributor, who was a member of President George W. Bush’s senior staff. “I thought that Romney rose to the occasion. I thought that he put the speaker on the defensive and I thought that this is the Romney that should have appeared last Monday and Thursday.”
Blakeman said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had some good exchanges, but Texas Rep. Ron Paul had a flat performance.
“Paul certainly isn’t a contender in Florida. He doesn’t have the organization, nor does he have the funds necessary to mount a serious challenge. He’s really nowhere without the debates,” Blakeman said. “Santorum is trying to get things started, but the clock is ticking in Florida.”
With that in mind, Romney wasted little time attacking Gingrich’s record as speaker during the 1990s.
“I think as you choose the president of the United States you are looking for a person who can lead this country in a very critical time — lead the free world — and the free world has to lead the entire world,” Romney said. “I think it’s about leadership and the speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994 — and at the end of four years — he had to resign in disgrace.”
Romney said Gingrich became an “influence peddler in Washington” while Romney was running the Olympic winter games.
NBC’s Brian Williams, who was the debate moderator, pointed to Romney’s pledge only last week that he would refrain from negativity in the debates.
Romney said the negative attacks against him in the Palmetto State drove him to re-examine his approach.
“I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina. And that was I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of the attack,” he countered. “And I’m going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire? I would like not to have the kind of attacks that came against me.”
Gingrich challenged Romney’s facts with respect to his tenure as speaker, calling Romney a good financier but a terrible historian.
“Apparently your consultants aren’t very good historians,” jabbed the new front-runner. “What you ought to do is stop and look at the facts. And the fact is we won the House for the third time in 1998.”
Gingrich said that he was the only speaker since the 1920s who led the Republican Party to three consecutive victories, then turned to a discussion of Romney’s record.
“By the way, in 2006 when you chaired the governor’s association, we lost governorships, and in the four years that you were governor, we lost seats in the Massachusetts legislature,” Gingrich said. “So I think as a party builder, the 20 years I spent building the House Republican Party stands pretty good as an example of leadership.”
Gingrich also vowed Monday to “overthrow the regime” of Fidel Castro if elected president.
Responding to a question by Williams with respect to U.S. policy toward Cuba, Gingrich said he would press for a “Cuban Spring” much like the Arab Spring, which has been sweeping the Middle East.
“We will not tolerate four more years of this [Castro] regime,” Gingrich said.
Castro has been in power in some form for more than 50 years, and Cuba remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Gingrich said he would accomplish the goal of ousting Castro by “using every asset” the U.S. government has, including support of a popular uprising and encouraging Cuban youth to take to the streets.
Romney, who suffered major blows in last week’s debate over his reluctance to release his income tax returns, sought to diminish those attacks against him in Monday’s contest. Before the debate, he announced that he intends to release two years of returns on Tuesday.
“Oh I’m sure people will talk about it,” Romney acknowledged when Williams pressed him. “I mean, you’ll see my income, how much taxes I paid, how much I paid to charity. You’ll see how complicated taxes can be. But I pay all of the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”
His chief rival chose not to attack Romney on the 15 percent in taxes that he paid.
“I’m prepared to describe my 15 percent flat tax as the Mitt Romney flat tax,” Gingrich declared. “I’d like to bring everybody else down to Mitt’s rate not try to bring him up to some other rate.”
Overall, Monday’s debate in Florida was far more tame than the two last week in South Carolina, where Gingrich racked up at least three standing ovations — most notably when he criticized CNN moderator John King for opening Thursday’s debate with “trash” and accusing the liberal media of attempting to protect President Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.
Those strong debate performances are credited with his recent spike in the polls.
Fueled by Saturday’s primary victory, Gingrich has now surged past Romney in two separate polls of likely Florida voters, a momentum that is unlikely to be disturbed by Monday’s debate.
An InsiderAdvantage poll released late Sunday night showed Gingrich besting Romney by 8 points among likely Republican primary voters while the latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of 750 likely Florida Republican primary voters — also taken Sunday evening — finds Gingrich with 41 percent of the vote compared with Romney’s 32 percent.
Although much of the focus of Monday’s debate remained on Gingrich and Romney, Santorum attempted to re-establish himself as a contender in Florida.
“I think if you’ve learned anything about this election — that any type of prediction is going to be wrong. The idea that this was a two-person race has been an idea that has been in fashion now for eight months and it’s been wrong about eight times,” said Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses.
“We’re looking at this race trying to paint a positive vision for our country. You asked my path to victory — my path to victory is to tell the people of Florida and tell the people of this country I’m someone who is here that presents a very clear contrast with the president of the United States, someone that will make him the issue in this race, not the Republican candidate.”
Paul, who finished fourth in South Carolina behind Santorum, acknowledged that he had not won any of the electoral contests to date but insisted that he is perhaps as electable as anyone on the stage.
“Why don’t we take on the first three states and take everybody 30 years and under. I’m doing pretty darn well. I’m winning that vote,” Paul said. “But what about if you compare my name to Obama. I do quite well — if not better than the rest. So to say that there has only been three races, and talk about not being electable, I think is a bit of a stretch.”