The stakes are high. Moderated by NBC’s own Brian Williams, the January 23 debate at the University of South Florida came at an unprecedented moment in Republican politics. Never before have there been three different winners for the first three primaries.
In a revelation reminiscent of the recount fiasco of 2000, it now appears that Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney, won the Iowa caucus. Furthermore, Newt Gingrich upset the apple cart of Republican conventional wisdom by trouncing Romney in a decisive win in South Carolina. Having blundered during the last debate, Romney seemed uncertain about a rematch with the grandiloquent Gingrich.
However, a strong showing in the USF debate was crucial for Romney. Florida is the next primary state, and a strong win in this state rich with electoral college votes might prove to voters that he is the only Republican candidate with a chance of beating President Obama. In light of all this pressure, Romney was merely satisfactory in this debate.
He seemed uncomfortable. Jostling to position himself as a moderate and a conservative, while simultaneously attempting to neutralize the threat posed by Gingrich and attack Obama, he wandered from offensive to defensive in the manner of an angsty teenager.
Neither Republican frontrunner made himself look appealing by immediately honing in on the baggage of the past. The accusations centered upon Gingrich’s troubled tenor as Speaker of the House. In response to why he resigned from that post, Gingrich gave a revisionist version of history that involved him magnanimously abdicating that office.
Although Romney was right to bring up the issue of ethics violations that Gingrich conveniently forgot, he should have realized that such issues do not galvanize audiences. America’s youngest voters were not yet in first grade when the Republican coup of the ’90s took place. Furthermore, Gingrich employed his typical verbal wiliness by maneuvering the attack on him into an opportunity to criticize President Obama.
Both frontrunners did effectively utilize their air time by presenting narratives of their lives in that seemingly went from bright spots to bright spots. Romney appealed to Republican values by emphasizing his hard-earned, corporate success and his patriotism in making the 2000 Olympics a financial boon. Gingrich, however, sought to evoke Republican nostalgia by comparing himself to the hallowed Ronald Reagan.
Early on, Rick Santorum positioned himself as the candidate who stood above the fray. He reminded the audience of his success in making a two-way race into one of three strong competitors. Santorum lost no time in the spotlight to sell himself as the candidate who could appeal to both Reagan Democrats and faithful conservatives with economic plans that include everybody. After such optimistic talking points, the conversation returned to heated arguments between Gingrich and Romney.
The two front runners argued about taxes. Once again, the issue of Romney’s low tax rate reared its head. In an attempt to combine populist outrage with fiscal conservatism, Gingrich advocated a “Romney flat tax” that would give all Americans the 15% tax that Romney pays on his investment income. Yet, in a rare moment of political savvy, Romney pointed out that under Gingrich’s plan, he would go from paying 15% to 0% on his investments.
Showing even more acumen, Romney brought up Gingrich’s shady work history with Freddie Mae and Fannie Mac, mortgage firms that contributed to the foreclosure mess that still grips Florida. People who are merely “historians” for large corporations, he noted, do not make $30,000 an hour.
Romney has a real chance of regaining his momentum in the Sunshine State. Florida does not contain the bastion of Evangelical voters that undid Romney in South Carolina, and his debate performance was not as bad as previous ones. Unfortunately, mediocre may not cut it in a race this tight.