After two combative debates in South Carolina that helped change the trajectory of the Republican race, the first of two debates in Florida was relatively low key and seems unlikely to change anything. With good answers and very good luck, Mitt Romney recovered after a tough week that had two mediocre debate performances, nagging questions about his taxes and wealth, and a 12-point loss in South Carolina, a state polls had him leading by double-digits just six days before Saturday’s vote.
If debates are more a series of moments than fluid discussions of policy and process, Romney had two good moments. The first came during his relentless prosecution of Newt Gingrich on the question of “influence peddling” – and it was a moment of silence. Romney pressed the former House speaker on his work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, on potential conflicts of interest in his health care lobbying and his businesses, on his the ethics charges brought against him, and on claims that he “lobbied” members of Congress on the prescription drug entitlement. Gingrich initially tried to ignore Romney’s critique but that proved too difficult, so he engaged.
As he had in at least one previous debate, Gingrich not only defended his work on behalf of government-sponsored entities (GSEs), but he defended their existence. Even if he were right that such quasi-public institutions serve an important role – a dubious proposition, at best – it’s not a winning argument in a Republican primary. The central rationale for a Gingrich candidacy is that he is a conservative, and Romney is not. He usually distances himself from anything in his history that undercuts that rationale (e.g. Nancy Pelosi and the couch, which he calls the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years”), yet he embraced GSEs.
At another moment in the lengthy exchange, Gingrich was utterly nonplussed – something that doesn’t happen often.
The second good moment came when Romney turned a question about sugar subsidies into an opportunity to talk about the direction of the country under Barack Obama. Romney does this often, but it seemed to work better than some of his other attempts. He avoided the temptation to pander – “we ought to get rid of subsidies” – and broadened the discussion to lay out the main components of the case against the president.
This president came into office saying he'd turn this economy around, and everything he has done has made it harder for the people of Florida.
We have 25 million Americans out of work. We have, in Florida, 9.9 percent unemployed. We have 18 percent of our people in this state that are underemployed. Home values, 40 percent are underwater.
This president has failed miserably the people of Florida. His plans for NASA, he has no plans for NASA. The space coast is -- is struggling. This president has failed the people of Florida. We have to have a president who understands how to get an economy going again. He does not. He plays 90 rounds of golf when you have 25 million people out of work. He says gasoline prices doubled during his presidency. He says don't build a Keystone pipeline.
We have $15 trillion of debt. We're headed to a—to a Greece- type collapse, and he adds another trillion on top for Obamacare and for his stimulus plan that didn't create private-sector jobs. This president has failed. And this economy needs a president who understands this economy.
Romney was pretty good, but he was also very lucky. In the final segment of the debate, moderator Brian Williams asked him a question that had the potential to be very damaging had it come in, say, the first set of questions. “What have you done to further the cause of conservatism as a Republican leader?”
Romney gave three reasons: He had a family, he worked in the private sector, and he served as governor of a blue state where he cut taxes, balanced the budget, and implemented English-immersion curricula in schools. As Jonah Goldberg noted: “There are lots of liberals who raised families and started businesses. Those are admirable things but they have nothing to do with advancing conservatism.”
And while Romney deserves credit for cutting taxes as governor, his record of accomplishment in Massachusetts also includes a health care plan that served as the model for Obamacare. It was a weak response that reinforced the chief vulnerability of Romney’s candidacy. (The Gingrich campaign mischievously sent out a press release after the debate headlined “Mitt Romney’s Top Conservative Achievements.” It was empty.)
This was the kind of gaffe that fits the prevailing media narrative about the race—at least right now. It doesn't take much imagination to see television networks replaying the Williams-Romney exchange in a way that suggests Romney didn't provide a good answer because he couldn't. But coming as it did at the very end of the debate, Romney’s answer didn’t get much scrutiny. Print reporters in the filing center, under very tight deadlines, had already written the ledes to their stories – many of which focused on Romney’s strong exchange with Gingrich more than an hour earlier. Many judges among the twitterati had already offered their “winners” and “losers” of the debate.
So Romney’s potentially damaging answer will not likely get the attention it might have had it come earlier in the night. And the rest of his performance was strong enough that the debate probably registers as a win for him.
Still, unlike Gingrich’s memorable moments from the two South Carolina debates, nothing in Monday’s debate seems likely to alter the race in Florida in any serious way, either by boosting Romney or slowing Gingrich’s momentum.