With the days until the Florida primary counting down, the debates were once again being closely watched as a potential way for the top two candidates to steal momentum from the other, or even for one of the come from behind candidates to make their case to the voters. I missed Monday’s debate (I know, for shame!) but I watched last night’s performance with some interest and was a bit dissapointed that it seemed pretty balanced overall. Not that being balanced in performance is a bad thing, it just means that last night’s debate, unlike the South Carolina debates, probably isn’t going to significantly help or hurt any of the candidates, and that makes me wonder if the debates will even matter in Florida after being so critical in SC.
As far as who did well last night, it’s hard for me to say anyone “won” since no one had a spectacular night and they were all a bit mixed.
Romney got some good hits in on Gingrich (hypocritical hits, but I count them as good since Newt didn’t hit back effectively to point out the hypocrisy) early and then got back to stumbling over things when diverted from his talking points. is actual performance in questions was pretty mediocre, but his fake moral high ground card may help him out as long as people don’t watch his ads or listen to him speak at events.
Gingrich was on the defensive all night and that’s a weaker position for him than the offensive, but he seemed to handle the immigration and particularly Israel answers well and that gave him some momentum to close out on. There are two things Newt needs to do if he wants to keep momentum on his side though, and he’s not doing them well right now. The first is he needs to stop making outlandish attacks he’s not willing to back up. Calling Romney anti-immigrant was a risky play and it backfired. He needs to pay attention to Romney’s style- make small numerous attacks that are difficult to counter and then pretend to be morally superior after your attacks. He also desperately needs to be able to counter Romney’s attacks more effectively. Romney successfully countered Newt’s attacks without having much more substance or any more truth to his statements than Gingrich’s attacks had, and unless Gingrich can follow up Romney’s attacks with some solid facts or an effectively pointing out Romney’s hypocrisy on that issue he’s going to appear to be the weaker candidate. I’m sure his debate coach or campaign staff are telling him this too, I just hope he listens or this won’t be a two or three man race for long.
Santorum came across much stronger than normal because of his “get back to the issues” plea (you know he had that one up his sleeve waiting for an opportune moment- he’s seen how Newt capitalizes off calling out media fluff questions and he wanted a piece), but when asked to explain his own views he stumbles around and doesn’t appear prepared. It was also more than a little amusing to see him call for civility and ending attacks and then turn around and use his questions as an opportunity to attack Romney and Newt. He’s desperate to do well enough in Florida to regain enough momentum to continue his campaign and it shows.
Ron Paul didn’t have to do much defending and people still like his message about constitutional freedoms and the money supply and such, but he also didn’t earn any new points or followers since it was pretty much the same old thing all over again. He has his strong anti-establishment young voter base, they’re not going anywhere, but they’re also not going to matter in Florida since it’s an all or nothing state for delegates. The only thing that he might be able to do is kill off Rick Santorum’s campaign, but he would need to build a bit more support in Florida to do that. I do think that his message will resonate with some of the elderly voters that remember the “good old days” of cheaper healthcare, not being groped at the airport, and retirement accounts that were solvent, but the elderly vote is probably more likely to gravitate to Romney (partly for looks/style and success in business) and Newt because they make more loud statements about how to fix things than Ron Paul effectively delivers.
It’ll be interesting to see how Florida plays out. I have no idea who will win- Newt has used debates to his advantage thus far, but his performances this week have just been average and that may not be enough to overcome the pre-existing Romney machine advantage in the sunshine state, which is what he needed to do. Romney has done well enough in debates and has been scathing enough in his attacks against Gingrich in Florida events that he may not be gaining new support per se, but he’s not giving people a reason to vote for someone else and that’s probably all it will take with the others fighting for whatever’s left. Newt and Romney will be fighting each other, barring some miraculous Paul or Santorum performance in Florida, for at least a few more states, but Gingrich needs to stay pretty even with Romney in Florida to keep momentum on his side. I do think that Florida might be enough to kill off Santorum if he comes in last- he’s out of money and out of momentum and he needs something to put some new life back in his campaign if he’s going to be able to continue in Nevada and beyond. If Ron Paul, who’s not even actively campaigning in Florida, beats him there then I think he’ll have no other option but to drop out. Paul has the luxury of a pretty steady money supply and loyal followers, so he’s going to be around as long as he possibly can.