Newt Gingrich Swings at Mitt Romney and Misses in CNN Florida Debate

Gingrich botches several attacks during a clumsy night in the CNN debate. Howard Kurtz on how Romney found his footing while punching back.

Paul J. Richards / Getty Images

Newt Gingrich waited half an hour to throw the first punch at Mitt Romney, and he missed badly.

In the opening moments of CNN’s debate in Jacksonville on Thursday night, Gingrich passed up one invitation to smack Romney and tried to deflect another Mitt attack without swinging back. Although Gingrich has used some tough rhetoric on the campaign trail, he once again seemed to be restraining himself on the debate stage, as he did in the NBC faceoff Monday night.

But then he got mad.

After Romney pounced on the former speaker’s $1.6-million contract with Freddie Mac, Gingrich declared that—“to our shock”—he’d discovered that Romney had owned shares of Freddie and Fannie Mae, the federally subsidized mortgage agencies. What’s more, that rich guy had made more than $1 million on the trading. Oh, and he owned some Goldman Sachs, too.

Romney coolly responded that these investments had been made by his blind trust, that these were mutual funds, and by the way, you invested in Fannie and Freddie too. You could hear the air escaping from the Newt balloon.

Then things got worse for Gingrich, who did not have a good night. He swung and missed several times—even at Wolf Blitzer!—and Romney proved to be a surprisingly effective counterpuncher.

Gingrich’s second botched attack came when the CNN moderator asked about his criticism of Romney for investing some of his millions in Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts. A “nonsense question,” Newt declared. But Blitzer stood firm, saying he was simply citing the Georgian’s own words, and Romney—noting that these decisions were also made by a trustee—chided him for not being willing to stand behind his attacks.

Gingrich, who has seemed so sure-footed in most of the debates, just couldn’t get his balance. That was clear when he doubled down on an ad that he had to pull—calling Romney an “anti-immigrant” candidate—with a disquisition on not kicking grandmothers out of the country.

Romney, showing reflexes not previously on display, called Gingrich’s ad “inexcusable” and “inflammatory,” noted that Marco Rubio had denounced it, and demanded Newt apologize. Gingrich seemed slightly flustered, pivoting back to the poor grandmothers.

Gingrich also found himself backpedaling on a Romney ad saying he had called Spanish the “language of the ghetto”—not a popular stance in Florida. The best that Newt could say was that it was taken out of context. Romney lost points, though, when he said he wasn’t sure it was his commercial. Blitzer later confirmed that it was.

There was plenty of media chatter after the Tampa debate that the silence of the crowd, admonished by Brian Williams to stay quiet, hurt Gingrich. But the audience did nothing to help Newt on Thursday night.

Like two bloodied boxers going 15 rounds, Romney and Gingrich have had to make adjustments. Gingrich broke through in the South Carolina debates and seemed to be surging in Florida. But Romney has found a way to go toe-to-toe with Gingrich without seeming overbearing. Gingrich, by contrast, has lost steam this week.

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There is a growing sense that Newt’s momentum in Florida has been blunted, with recent polls showing Romney regaining a 7- or 8-point lead. As Tuesday’s primary approaches, the CNN debate was his last best chance to seize the initiative—especially since the next debate doesn’t take place until late February. By that measure, Gingrich fell short, and the Romney camp must be breathing a little easier.