Mitt Romney was so anxious to attack Newt Gingrich in Monday’s NBC debate that it was as though he was delivering a PowerPoint presentation on speed.
Bam! Newt “had to resign in disgrace” as House speaker. Bam! He was an "influence peddler." Bam! He sat on a sofa with Nancy Pelosi. Bam! He called the Medicare voucher plan “right-wing social engineering.”
In those opening moments in Tampa, it seemed Romney was spitting out every zinger he could think of, or that his consultants had forced him to memorize. Gingrich, meanwhile, took a Reaganesque approach, saying he would not “spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney’s misinformation.”
What a difference a South Carolina victory makes.
In most of the past debates, Gingrich has been the attack dog, biting the leg of Romney or whatever debate monitor happened to be on the stage. But now it was Romney, the former frontrunner, on the offensive, and Gingrich trying to brush off his attacks.
Eventually they went toe-to-toe as Brian Williams ceded them the stage, and both men accumulated their share of bruises. A week before the Florida primary, Romney had to change the campaign’s dynamic, and he did. But Romney seemed to be flailing at times, shedding the garb of the seasoned businessman for the fighting trunks of a hesitant political brawler.
In the spin room here in Tampa, the verbal fisticuffs continued.
“It was a complete disassembling of Newt Gingrich,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist. “An absolutely devastating night.” In the face of Romney’s offensive, he said, “Newt Gingrich melted like ice on a hot stove.”
I pressed Stevens about the risk to his candidate of such a pugilistic approach. “People want someone who’s going to stand up and get to the bottom of the truth,” he said. “That was a good example of what he’d do to Barack Obama.” Romney took apart Gingrich based on “logic” and “intellect,” he said, rather than “beating up on the moderator.”
A few yards away, Gingrich spokesman R. C. Hammond was no less aggressive. Romney, he said, “didn’t come off as a president. He came off as someone’s younger whining sibling … He’s very good at memorizing his consultants’ lines.”
Hammond compared his man’s performance to the plot of Rocky I: “The first nine rounds, he took punches to the face. What you saw tonight was statesmanship. You saw Romney trying to provoke him the entire time. It’s not going to work.”
A more neutral assessment: the two men probably fought to a draw, neither looking particularly good in the process. And that, on balance, helped Romney, since as the longtime frontrunner his weaknesses are better known at this point. The only clear winner was Williams, who avoided the fate of John King and emerged unscathed.
Bad moment for Newt: Trying to explain that he asked House Republicans to vote to reprimand him for ethics violations in 1997 to put behind him a plot cooked up by “bitter” Democrats—and he paid $300,000 not as a fine but to cover the costs of the probe. Score one for Mitt for reminding voters of Gingrich’s tumultuous speakership.
Bad moment for Newt: Insisting that his $300,000-a-year Freddie Mac contract wasn’t as lucrative as it sounds because it only put $35,000 a year in his personal pocket—and defensively insisting he wasn’t lobbying. Score one for Mitt, who mocked the idea that Gingrich was hired as a historian (though Romney is incapable of making such gibes sound spontaneous).
Bad moment for Mitt: Drawing laughter from the audience when, after castigating Newt over the Freddie Mac largesse, he had to admit that Bain Capital’s profits on its contracts were “very substantial.” Score one for Newt. Just sounded like two wealthy businessmen arguing over whose is bigger.
Bad moment for Mitt: Saying that Americans wouldn’t want a president who pays more than he owes in taxes. That’s a sign that his tax returns, being released Tuesday, will show lots of deductions and dodges. Score one for Newt, who basically pressured Romney into putting out the returns by ratcheting up the pressure.
Rick Santorum was unable to capitalize on the two-man slugfest, in part because NBC gave them the lion’s share of airtime.
The Obama campaign team must have enjoyed Monday’s debate, since the two leading candidates wound up scratched and scuffed. Romney, who’s been playing for a year not to lose, now seems to be trying to win. He took a risk by throwing so many punches, coming down from a loftier perch to the trenches where campaigns are won and lost.