Mitt Romney did what many Republican voters wanted in the GOP debate last night--he demonstrated that he's willing to fight for his party's presidential nomination as he took on his main rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, like never before. Gingrich mostly refrained from returning the attacks in kind as he attempted to look as calm and patient as possible.
This was a substantial role reversal, since Gingrich has shown muscular aggressiveness and Romney has mostly stayed above the intra-party fray in the past debates. Above all, the changed styles reflected the state of the race, with Gingrich having the momentum after his big victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday and not wanting to make a major gaffe, and Romney going negative in an effort to slow him down.
The most memorable part of the debate, held in Tampa and moderated by NBC's Brian Williams, came in the first few minutes as Romney immediately took the offensive. The former venture capitalist and ex-governor of Massachusetts said Gingrich "had to resign in disgrace" as House speaker because of ethics problems that resulted in a reprimand from his colleagues. Romney added: "In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington." Gingrich replied, "I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney's misinformation. This is the worst kind of trivial politics. He said at least four things that are false."
The pair spent several minutes arguing over the somewhat tedious details of whose background would be more valuable as president. But Romney forced Gingrich to play defense, a role the former speaker seemed to find uncomfortable.
The crowd in the room respected Williams' request not to applaud or otherwise react to what the candidates said. And this seemed to sap energy from Gingrich, who has generated cheers and ovations from the audiences at past debates. This time, he was noticeably subdued, and his performance came across as tepid.
Gingrich and Romney tried to score points on issues important in Florida, which holds its primary a week from today. Gingrich defended key portions of Medicare, a popular program among the elderly and retired voters of Florida. Romney said he would devise programs to help people hold onto their mortgages and to rejuvenate the housing market, which is in deep trouble in Florida.
Gingrich and Romney both talked tough about confronting the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro, an appeal to the large Cuban American electorate in Florida.
Also participating in the debate were former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennslyvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, each of whom lag far behind in national polls.
The next GOP debate is scheduled in Jacksonville Thursday night.