WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney set out in Florida this week to prove that he could get down in the trenches and duke it out with Newt Gingrich. Last night, the former business turnaround expert left his uncertain performances of South Carolina behind and put his reengineered style on display.
The transformation began with a more aggressive performance in Monday’s debate, but last night Romney appeared more comfortable with the new posture. No longer the candidate who sought to stay above the fray, he appeared to revel in throwing roundhouse verbal punches on live television.
He even won a large helping of applause from an occasionally boisterous audience. He tangled with Gingrich over immigration, negative advertising, and Freddie Mac. He ridiculed Gingrich’s proposal to colonize the moon.
It was a reversal from last week in South Carolina, when Gingrich gained the upper hand with his command of debates and the accolades of a live crowd. Then, Romney stumbled on answers about his wealth and taxes, and the weak performances helped contribute to a sudden collapse in the polls and a startling defeat Saturday.
In Jacksonville, Fla., last night, Romney seemed more prepared and confident when he discussed his personal riches, giving his best defense yet. It amounted to this: Hey, that’s capitalism. It might not be an adequate explanation in a general election when President Obama is driving populist themes, but it was clear and simple enough to win applause last night.
A robust defense of his wealth is critical for the former Bain Capital chief executive: Any new development about his enormous income and his low tax rate reminds voters how different he is from average people in Florida, where real estate prices have plunged 50 percent since their peak and unemployment is nearly 10 percent. (At an event this week, he could only give a vague estimate of his net worth when asked by a voter - between $150 million and $200 million.)
By being so aggressive, both in brawling debates and by launching negative attacks, Romney risks turning off some voters. But the greater imperative for him was to appear forceful in the face of a strong challenge from Gingrich.
The behind-the-scenes effort by a new debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, an import from the failed Michele Bachmanneffort, appeared to pay off.
“When I’m shot at, I’ll return fire,’’ Romney said after last night’s debate. “I’m no shrinking violet.’’
At the same time, Gingrich seemed somewhat off balance as he tried to deflect Romney’s repeated attacks over the former House speaker’s consulting contract with the government mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Romney also turned the tables when Gingrich criticized him for having investments in Freddie Mac, declaring that Gingrich also had such investments.
Romney also benefited from an apparent shift in strategy by Gingrich. His performances have been more muted. Host Wolf Blitzer had to goad him into questioning about a Swiss bank account among Romney’s investments.
In the debate’s second hour, Gingrich questioned Romney’s support of Paul Tsongas, the late Massachusetts senator. Romney again had an answer, that he never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot.
“Any chance to vote against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, I took,’’ he said.
There was an awkward moment for Romney. Blitzer questioned him about a radio spot accusing Gingrich of calling Spanish “the language of the ghetto.’’ Romney said he was unaware of the ad, even though Blitzer later confirmed that Romney said at the end of the spot he approved the message.
Yet, even then, Romney deftly and immediately turned the audience’s attention from his gaffe toward his nemesis: “Let me ask the speaker a question. Did you say what the ad says or not?’’
“It’s taken totally out of context,’’ Gingrich said.
Romney nodded again, adding: “Oh, OK, he said it.’’
With the final Florida debate over, the candidates are planning to scatter from gulf to ocean and everywhere in between over the next four days, in a scramble before Tuesday’s election.
Romney’s forces are hoping his aggressive tone and direct attacks on Gingrich in these last two debates will dispel doubts about his candidacy and prove he can lead a vigorous fight against President Obama.
If Romney fails to make the case to Florida voters this weekend and ends up losing Tuesday, the Republican Party will be faced with a bleak scenario. Romney backers say he is prepared for state-by-state combat all spring, in a contest driven by the mathematics of proportional delegate allocation. But losing three out of the first four contests would erase any remaining claim he has to front-runner status and raise serious doubts about why he should be the party’s nominee.
Those worries help explain the train of Republican Party establishment figures who are heaping criticism on Gingrich. Their message is that Gingrich is “dangerous’’ and “risky,’’ an unreliable leader, who will be defeated easily by Obama and cost Republicans dearly in congressional races.
Hand-wringing by such traditional GOP figures is understandable. Gingrich would be weaker than Romney in the fight for support of independent voters, who will decide the general election, according to polls.
A Suffolk University survey this week of all Florida voters showed that Obama would crush Gingrich among independents, 56 percent to 29, in a head-to-head matchup. Gingrich also would lose heavily to Obama among women in Florida, 55 to 32, the poll found. Romney would lose among independents 44 to 38, and among women 45 to 43.
The finding was similar to exit polls in New Hampshire that showed Gingrich doing poorly among crucial swing voters.
“It’s like Kryptonite, the independent presence,’’ said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk Poll. “The bigger it gets, the weaker he gets.’’
Gingrich will be scrambling over the weekend to expand his support in the face of the onslaught.
He lacks Romney’s money and extensive roster of endorsements. What’s kept him in the race thus far is a conservative longing for an anti-Romney candidate and $10 million in super PAC money from casino baron Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam.
“He needs to consolidate an alternative base of power,’’ said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University.
“Maybe one rich casino magnate is enough, or maybe it’s enough to get the conservative news media to push his candidacy. If that’s the case, he may be able to make an end run around leadership,’’ Sides said.