Well, that was a fun Republican primary. But, barring some major scandal, it is probably over now. Romney absolutely seemed like a new man tonight. Every time Gingrich tried an attack, Romney turned it right back around against Gingrich.
Early on Newt was asked whether Romney was the most “anti-immigrant” candidate on the stage. Gingrich agreed, and Romney just flayed him for the “repulsive” attack. The audience cheered like crazy for Romney.
Romney managed to sound both more conservative in the substance of his immigration plan, and more temperate about the issue overall.
Later, Gingrich was invited to attack Romney’s wealth. He tried to say that Romney had made money from investments in mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so Newt’s involvement isn’t so different.
Romney pointed out that Gingrich had a similar portfolio but that owning a mutual fund that invests in them is different from consulting and shilling for them. In other words, I may indirectly own a little Freddie Mac. But Freddie Mac leased you.
Romney looked in command the whole time. Gingrich looked tired.
Halfway through the debate, Gingrich almost tried to retreat into his old tactic of calling for a truce among the candidates.
It was a pathetic showing for Gingrich. Romney was more righteously indignant and in command. Santorum was more conservative. And Ron Paul was delivering better one-liners.
The only time Romney was put on the defensive was when Santorum wisely focused on health-care reform. Santorum suggested that a Romney nomination would effectively “concede” the Obamacare issue. Obama could just say, ‘we only did what you did in your state.’ Santorum got into details about rising health-insurance costs in Massachusetts. Santorum got the best all around reviews, but he seems unlikely to finish in the top two in Florida.
Paul had a good night. When asked if he would release his health records he made everyone cheer for him by challenging the other candidates to a 25 mile bike ride in the Texas sun. He also routinely cut through the weeds of policy detail to articulate a philosophical view of government that conservatives like. Hate Fannie and Freddie: Why not free market housing? Health-care costs too high? Well, government has caused the spike in prices through its meddling; get it out. Paul also reached out rhetorically to the Occupy movement, by saying that the government’s regulation of the economy did benefit the 1 per cent.
But the overwhelming story from tonight is that at exactly the right moment, Mitt Romney rose up to Gingrich’s challenge and simply defeated him where Gingrich was thought to be strongest: on the debate stage.