After rising in South Carolina with a withering debate assault on the media “elites” he disdains, Newt Gingrich was saved from further political pounding in Florida last night as NBC broke away from a debate it was sponsoring for a commercial break.
Only that capitalistic intervention halted a relentless, focused, and multi-pronged attack on his character and business and political records by rival Mitt Romney, who debated as if his future candidacy may hinge on the outcome of the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
Whether it truly does is debatable, but after having lost the South Carolina primary to Gingrich over the weekend, Romney challenged him with the focus of someone coming back from a near-death experience.
It was highlight of a 90-minute debate sponsored by NBC News, The Tampa Bay Times, the National Journal, and the Florida Council of 100, a state-focused public policy nonprofit.
Moderator Brian Williams opened by asking Gingrich, Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul to make their respective cases for their electability against President Obama.
It offered Romney the first of several openings for the night to take on the rival who had supplanted him as the nomination frontrunner.
“I think it’s about leadership, and the speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace,” Romney said of Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman who served as speaker of the House from 1994 until 1998.
“I had the opportunity to go off and run the Olympic Winter Games.” Romney continued. “In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington.”
After Gingrich said the criticisms were inaccurate, Williams asked Romney another question about his electability in the South.
Again, like a laser-guided missile, Romney homed in on Gingrich.
“The truth is that the members of his own team, his congressional team, after his four years of leadership, they moved to replace him,” he said. “They also took a vote, and 88 percent of Republicans voted to reprimand the speaker, and he did resign in disgrace after that.”
Romney then pivoted to the news of the day, Gingrich’s release of a contract under which his first was paid by Freddie Mac, which many Republicans cite as a co-conspirator with Fannie Mae in causing the country’s housing collapse.
“I don’t think we can possibly retake the White House if the person who’s leading our party is the person who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac,” said Romney. “Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich $1.6 million at the same time Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars.”
Even when Williams reminded Romney that he had complained a week earlier about too much negativity among the candidates, the former Massachusetts governor did not relent.
He said that his loss in Florida had taught him to respond to negative attacks - even though he beat Gingrich in Iowa largely on the strength of attack ads aired by a pro-Romney group, and although the same super PAC also pummeled Gingrich in South Carolina and is now doing the same to him and Santorum in Florida.
When Williams again asked Gingrich about the Freddie Mac contract, Romney pounced again.
“They weren’t hiring you as an historian. And this contract proves that you were not an historian. You were a consultant,” Romney said as he looked at Gingrich standing at a podium two feet away.
And when the conversation shifted to Gingrich’s involvement in health care consulting, Romney said to him: “If your entities are getting paid by health companies that could benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you’d like; I call it influence-peddling.”
The back-and-forth ceased only when Williams broke for the evening’s first commercial break, a reflection of the candidates’ first debate in primetime on a commercial broadcast network.
The debate never regained that segment’s intensity, even as the candidates faced pointed questions from two local reporters asking them about specifics of local issues.
Gingrich, who looked tired during the debate, seemed pleased with that result.
Paul also was not on the offensive last night, perhaps a reflection of his decision to essentially skip Florida’s Jan. 31 primary and focus on smaller caucus states later in the calendar.
The Texas congressman’s moment in the spotlight came as he fended off questions about whether he would wage a third-party bid for the White House should Gingrich emerge as the Republican nominee.
“I have no plans to do that, no intention,” he said, leaving it a possibility.
Asked directly if he could support Gingrich as the GOP nominee, Paul drew laughter when he replied: “Well, he keeps hinting about attacking the Fed, and he talks about gold (monetary standards). Now, if I could just change him on foreign policy, we might be able to talk business.”
Santorum, who is trying to break through as the alternate conservative alternative to Romney, was forceful in a debate otherwise dominated by the Romney-Gingrich dynamic.
He did not shy when asked about his involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, which split Florida over family rights, or when asked to make his case for allowing additional gas exploration off the coast of Florida, whose tourism industry was hurt by the BP oil spill
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, also made a passionate case on a pet cause: blocking Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But he may have risen to his highest rhetorical heights when he was asked whether the attacks between Gingrich and Romney fueled electability issues for both leading candidates.
Santorum said their prior support for individual health insurance mandates, cap-and-trade emission regulations, and support for Wall Street bailouts was more troublesome because it rendered them indistinguishable from President Obama in a general election.
“I said before, here’s one where you had folks who preach conservatism, private sector, and when push came to shove, they got pushed,” said Santorum. “They didn’t stand tall for the conservative principles that they argued that they were for. And as a result, we ended up with this bailout that has injected government into business like it had never been done before.”
He added: “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand. ... And that’s why this election in Florida is so critical, that we have someone that actually can create a contrast between the president and the conservative point of view.”
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.