Mitt Romney may not drink, but he was loaded when he entered last night’s debate in Jacksonville, Fla. He went after Newt Gingrich immediately and relentlessly. He scolded him, rendered him momentarily mute, and took answers about other topics and turned them into attacks on Gingrich on key issues like excessive government spending. Romney didn't just have good answers, he looked like a man in command of himself. His new debate coach Brett O'Donnell should double his fees.
There are now five days until the Florida primary, and state polls show that Romney and Gingrich are neck and neck. Newt Gingrich is up 9 points over Romney in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Romney’s strong performance will give him a little spring in his step and make his supporters feel like they're backing a winner again. Florida has 10 television markets, and if the editors and producers are good to Romney, he'll get about 12 hours of free coverage of the debate.
Romney was not flawless, but he showed aptitude over a wide range of subjects, learned new material, and adapted to the challenges he faces. For a candidate that has been called robotic he was nimble.
Romney started right away. If a candidate can deliver a strong moment that will run throughout the next day on cable and on local news, he wins the night. You just have to be good once, and preferably early in the evening. Romney had to know that Gingrich's claim that Romney was "anti-immigrant" would come up, and it came up early. He took offense and then took a hairbrush to Gingrich's bottom. He said the attack was "repulsive," called on Gingrich to apologize for the "kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long."
Gingrich, inexplicably continued to defend the sentiment behind the "anti-immigrant" ad that he pulled down and that Sen. Marco Rubio had criticized. It gave Romney a chance to look indignant. This provides us with a quirk of political theater: Romney, who is authentically stiff and robotic in his natural state, looked "authentic" in what was no doubt a staged moment.
Romney also finally gave his best defense yet of his taxes. After Gingrich dared him to explain his Swiss bank account, Romney launched into a riff he'd clearly tried out a few times in front of the mirror. "I think it's important for people to make sure that we don't castigate individuals who have been successful. Let's put behind us this idea of attacking me because of my money."
He was in Gingrich's face all night. He criticized Gingrich for his ambitious plans to colonize the moon. "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, ‘You're fired.’ (Remember just a few weeks ago when Romney couldn’t say the word fired? That’s OK it was Newt he was firing.) "At another time he kneed Gingrich for pandering to local politicians, offering a new project in every state he visited. "This idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending."
During an exchange over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Gingrich offered a blustery attack on Romney's investments in the two companies. Romney pointed out that Gingrich had identical investments. "Right," was all Gingrich could say, as if being guilty of the charge he had just leveled at Romney were totally natural.