- Bill Bennett: In Florida GOP debate, Romney delivered forceful performance
- Bennett: Santorum had a strong showing as well; Gingrich was not so successful
- Ron Paul was uncannily candid while staying above scrum, Bennett says
South Carolina was a wake-up call for Mitt Romney. In Thursday night's CNN debate, Romney delivered an aggressive, forceful performance that many thought he was incapable of. The upcoming Florida primary could turn out very differently now, and the results could go a long way toward helping him win the Republican nomination.
Romney went on the offensive early on, besting Newt Gingrich in an early exchange over immigration. When moderator Wolf Blitzer raised Gingrich's recent advertisement that called Romney "anti-immigrant," Romney shot back, "The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive" and added that he has the support of popular Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Gingrich was left defending his own attack ad, a bad position for him to start the debate.
When the issue of Freddie Mac came up, Romney again got the better of Gingrich.
Gingrich accused Romney of owning shares in Freddie and Fannie, to which Romney retorted, "Have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac." Somewhat stunned, Gingrich weakly replied, "Compare my investments with (Romney's) is like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant" -- a bad analogy in a Republican debate.
Romney's momentum almost came to a screeching halt when he admitted that he didn't know the content of an ad his campaign was running against Gingrich. Voters don't like runaway campaigns, and this might be a forewarning for Romney to rein in his attack ads. Gingrich tried to turn this to his advantage but couldn't deliver a knockout blow, fortunately for Romney.
Gingrich is best received when he goes on the offense against the liberal media or President Obama, not his fellow candidates. He was tough on the president's record on foreign policy, religious freedom and the economy, particularly with his catchy attack slogan of paycheck vs. food stamp. He should devote more time to bringing those issues to the forefront.
In an unexpected turn, Gingrich might have also lost his first debate exchange with a moderator. Blitzer pressed him about comments he made during the week about Romney's Swiss bank account; Gingrich tried to brush off the barb, but Blitzer doubled down, and Gingrich could not muster his typical counterattack. Romney seized on the moment, noting sharply that candidates should be held accountable in debates for what they say on the campaign trail.
Gingrich won South Carolina largely because of his memorable debate performances just days before the primary. He didn't have a similar success Thursday night.
In terms of politics, the night may have been Romney's, but on substance, the debate belonged to Rick Santorum.
While Romney and Gingrich were locked in personal quibbles, Santorum showed real leadership and turned the focus back to Obama and the issues while delivering the best line of the night.
"We have been playing petty personal politics," Santorum said. "Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies -- and that's not the worst thing in the world -- and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard? You guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues."
Santorum also found his best line of contrast with Gingrich and Romney: health care. He repeatedly pressed Romney on the Massachusetts' health care plan and individual mandate until Romney blurted out, "First of all, it's not worth getting angry about." Many Americans are angry about Obamacare, and Santorum effectively tapped into that.
Santorum had his second strong debate in a row. He's not running TV ads in Florida and has moved some of his resources to other states. He might have underestimated his chances in Florida, especially after his repeatedly strong debate performances.
At the other end of the stage, Ron Paul was uncannily candid and funny while focused on the issues and staying above the Gingrich-Romney scrum. It might have been his best debate. The odds are very small that he will win the nomination, but his supporters are active and influential, and which candidate they shift to will be consequential.