The most surprising development of the final presidential debate in Florida was that Newt Gingrich played more defense than offense. That was particularly surprising because Mitt Romney did the opposite, as expected.
put together a list of seven important takeaways from the event. Here they are.
1) This was the “Trading Places” debate
Romney jumped on Gingrich from the get go, and the former House speaker was never quite able to regain the dominance he has shown in previous tussles. The former Massachusetts governor scored points earlier when he blasted Gingrich for a radio ad that already has been pulled calling Romney “anti-immigrant.” Romney deemed the accusation “repulsive” and demanded an apology. He didn’t get one, of course, but he did get momentum.
2) Whither Gingrich?
For someone who has been the star of previous debates, this seemed to be an off night. He spent most of his time trying to repel Romney’s thrusts. Gingrich wasn’t able to offer much of a defense when Romney pointed out that Gingrich has invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just like him.
3) The crowd was with Romney
The crowd was loud, as Gingrich had sought. But unlike previous debates, the audience wasn't backing him. Romney got more applause, including a rousing ovation when he went after Gingrich over the “anti-immigrant” issue. That was the most love a crowd has shown Romney in any debate. It also raised the question of whether the Romney camp stacked the audience.
4) Rick Santorum’s got game
The Iowa caucuses winner has been an afterthought in the Florida race. But he made an impression Thursday. He offered the strongest criticism against Romney of the night – over his Massachusetts healthcare plan. Santorum’s anger about Obamacare taps well into the Republican base’s own anger. He also spoke endearingly about his wife and faith.
5) Ron Paul was a crowd-pleaser
The Texas congressman is basically irrelevant in Florida, as he’s not even campaigning there. But he did bring some levity to the debate, challenging the others to a 25-mile bike ride when questioned about his advanced age (76).
6) Wolf Blitzer refused to be John King
Gingrich took CNN moderator King to the wood shed after he opened a South Carolina debate by asking about accusations from Gingrich’s second wife. And King took a public relations beating. But Blitzer largely stayed away from the personal issues.
7) The pause in debates is coming at just the right moment
Thursday’s was the final one until Feb. 22 in Arizona. That will mark the longest stretch of time without a debate since the 19 that have taken place began in May. Republican voters are likely happy. All the policy questions have basically been answered, and the squabbles between candidates offer little to the party, though perhaps some entertainment for viewers. But that entertainment comes at a cost. The Republican in-fighting offers avenues of attack for Democrats. But it will be difficult for a candidate to skip any of the upcoming debates.
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