TAMPA, Fla. -- Variations of a joke had been zinging around Twitter all day. My favorite version: "Newt to just come at Brian Williams with a taser tonight." Lacerating the Elite Media (or its familiar, the Elite Washington/New York Media) is a Gingrichian theme, and it's never easier than when the target is NBC -- one of three organizations behind this debate.
I think the joke's a little bit off. The man who has to attack tonight is Mitt Romney. It's not jist that the Elitists are expecting it. It's that Republican voters have become convinced that "debating aggressively" is a two-word synomnym for "being electable." Electable, in their view, means ripping the mask off Barack Obama as an empty-suited, communist-inspired, terrorist-befriending, Islam-accepting who never should have been installed in the White House. And Romney cannot prove his readiness by attacking Obama. He needs to withstand attacks, and dish them out without being laughed at. That's going to be difficult. Four years ago, Romney was in a very similiar position, and he utterly failed to rattle John McCain, or to look more than plaintive when he tried.
So, here's what I'm expecting.
Ron Paul - He might actually get a newsletter question again, but if he doesn't, he will make broad attacks on Santorum and Gingrich. If he switches and attacks Romney, it means, for the first time, that he thinks Gingrich could be his long-term foe.
Rick Santorum - He's in this because history suggests that Gingrich will falter. He knows exactly why Gingrich is succeeding: Transcendent anti-elite anger. He can play for that.
Newt Gingrich - For the first time since December, he just needs to parry Romney's attacks. Any "moment" would be gravy.
Mitt Romney - This is one of two debates, so if he doesn't rattle Newt in a serious way, it's survivable. But he will amplify what he is saying on the trail, that Gingrich's post-Speaker career amounted to complicity in the housing meltdown.
And Thunderbirds are go.
9:05: "I left the speakership," says Gingrich. "I didn't want to sit around like Nancy Pelosi has, and I founded four businesses." That's roundabout as ridiculous as Romney claiming he merely left the governor's mansion in Massachussetts because, gosh, he wanted to return to the private sector.
9:09: Romney tries the VERY OBVIOUS route to convincing voters that he's tough: "I'm not going to sit here and take attacks without returning fire."
9:11: Watch the bouncing dog whistle. In the the last debate, Rick Santorum said there was a difference between "capitalism and high finance." The implication was that high finance was worse, less legitimate. Now Newt calls Mitt a "financier." This says... something. I'm trying to figure out what.
9:17: Question: Why does Ron Paul constantly get asked if he'll run third party in 2012 -- a hypothetical question he can keep blowing off -- and not a historical question. 1) Why did you leave the Republican Party in 1988, and run against its nominee? 2) Why, in 2008, did you endorse three third party candidates, and not John McCain?
9:27: The ban on audience applause, teamed with Williams's dry questioning, is denying Newt his rock 'em sock 'em hit 'em with the chair moments.
9:32: Romney manages to pack nine or ten anti-Newt arguments in one over-running attack. Office on K Street! Fifteen years in Washington! Electability! Influence peddling! It's a far more coherent and rewarding attack now, and again, it's helped by the lack of anything happening in the room
9:45: A lively discussion between Romney and Gingrich about whether Fidel Castro will go to "another land" or Hell when he dies. I want to hear Santorum explain whether or not Castro will end up in Cuba.
9:52: Gingrich, Romney, and Paul more or less declare a state of war in Iran. Romney and Gingrich say that the Iranians started it; Paul says we did. Sleep tight, all.