The Algemeiner’s Republican Debate Blog from Jacksonville, Florida
by Dmitriy Shapiro
The fever pitch of the campaign trail has only intensified in the run-up to the Florida Republican Presidential Primary being held on Tuesday. Following Monday’s NBC debate, CNN is giving the candidates their last chance to show off for Florida voters before the primary in tonight’s debate, at 8pm ET.
Monday’s NBC debate annoyed certain voters and candidate by having the audience vow silence, preventing candidates and analysts from judging where the sympathies of Florida voters lie. Tonight, CNN promises to allow audience participation since audience reaction has so far made as much news as the candidate’s statements themselves.
Last Thursday’s CNN debate in North Charleston, SC, the audience was brought to their feet in the opening minutes, after host John King received a brutal rhetorical beat-down from former Speaker Newt Gingrich when asked whether he would like to expound on allegations aimed at him from his second wife in an ABC interview. Today’s moderator, Wolf Blitzer, will try to do his best dodging the knives being thrown toward him.
As boring as NBC’s debate was, Gov. Mitt Romney succeeded in blunting Gingrich’s post South Carolina momentum. With the help of a new debate coach, former John McCain and Michele Bachmann strategist Brett O’Donnell, Romney reassured his supporters that he’s able to successfully go on the offensive against Gingrich.
Gingrich was disadvantaged at the NBC debate. There are few in today’s politics who can use rhetoric to reinvigorate the essential Grassroots and Tea Party voters who will do anything to defeat Obama in the general election; though this doesn’t mean they are looking for electability. They are hoping for a candidate who communicates their beliefs with the same anger and fiery rhetoric characteristic of favorites like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Glenn Beck. Not only do they want to win the election, they want to ensure that Obama is badly bruised notwithstanding the final general election outcomes. Gingrich attacks on Obama and oft vilified “Main Stream Media” make him their candidate. Many prominent conservative voices, like conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, strongly disagree; siding with William F. Buckley’s opinion that the goal of the Party should be to win at all costs.
The main battle between Romney and Gingrich will be who can successfully prevent the other from labeling himself as the heir to the Ronald Reagan dynasty. Gingrich appears to have currently won the argument by receiving the endorsement of Reagan’s adopted son, conservative pundit Michael Reagan. In an interview with Fox News earlier today, Michael Reagan called Romney a Rockefeller Republican, saying that even if Gingrich disagreed with his father on a few occasions, he was nevertheless instrumental in his father’s success as president, labeled heir to Reagan’s torch by First Lady Nancy Reagan. Romney was also hurt by a 1990’s clip distancing himself from the Reagan dynasty when challenging the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in Congress.
Romney’s supporters are not worried though, since their candidate has rebounded in recent Florida polls, not to mention that much of the vote, in the form of absentee ballots, have already been returned and are supposed to lean heavily to Romney.
The battle for Hispanic voters appears to favor Romney as well, although much depends on tonight’s debate. A Spanish language ad from Gingrich’s campaign landed him in some trouble with popular Hispanic, and Tea Party backed Florida Senator Marco Rubio, causing the ad to be removed. Romney’s ad remained, but he is not exactly the darling of Latino voters either.
In earlier debates, when Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich demonstrated their willingness to establish pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S., Romney took the most conservative stance in order to appear as the strongest on Illegal Immigration and court the Tea Party. This backfired. Now, he appears to have changed his tune, relaxing the strong anti-immigration stance of previous debates.
With the audience being allowed to react, here’s to hoping tonights debate will be more exciting than Monday’s. Follow the www.algemeiner.com live blog for insight and information.
8:02: Strange, Newt Gingrich walks in to booing crowd. Either he insulted Ron Paul recently, or there are a lot of vocal Romney supporters.
8:04: The audience looks very lively. Certainly they’re relieved that they can finally cheer and boo at will.
8:06: Rick Santorum introduces his 93 year old mother to loud applause. He is the most likable candidate. Gingrich’s introduction took advantage of his immense knowledge of local issues. Romney’s intro was sullen. This absolutely has to be a great debate for Romney, or he jeopardizes his lead.
8:10: Rick Santorum doubling down on his far right stance on illegal immigration will play well with the general GOP electorate but will not do him any favors in Florida. Gingrich is correct that self deportation is absurd. Forced deportation, as espoused by many conservatives is just as unrealistic. The cost of resources needed for immigration agents and transportation for millions of immigrants is an unlikely option.
8:13: As mentioned earlier, Gingrich was forced to take down this ad by Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has not endorsed a candidate, nor that he will endorse someone; but the Gingrich campaign is afraid of changing that if he is angry at Newt.
8:20: Mitt Romney attacked Gingrich referencing Rubio. This is a powerful move for Tea Party voters. Gingrich is correct, but he is making himself look very soft on immigration. This may be unforgivable to his supporters. Audience applause for Romney’s demonstrates.
8:21: Romney: Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is 11 million illegal immigrants taking jobs from those who are here legally.
8:25: Hispanic Voter conference attendee asks what they will do as president to more deeply engage Latin America and promote free markets.
8:27: Santorum may be overplaying Obama’s love for leftist dictators. Fact check needed to see if Obama is really as friendly to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez as he accuses.
8:32: Wolf Blitzer has just caught Romney in a lie. That hurt him more than any Gingrich attack tonight.
8:33: Gingrich is trying to play his trump card: audience interaction. When he is able to get the audience involved, he gets them emotionally linked to his words. Brilliant move.
8:35: As always, there are a lot of loud Ron Paul supporters in the audience. I wonder if he is busing them around for these debates like he does for straw polls.
8:39: Santorum: “The reform we need is to gradually decrease the amount of mortgages that can be finance by Fannie and Freddie so that we could get rid of them altogether.”
Santorum energized the crowd by repeating popular conservative ideas. He is correct. The candidates have completely forgot that their final goal is to defeat Barack Obama. The State Of The Union address this week should have provided more than enough fodder for them.
8:42: Newt rejects a question that is supposed to set up an attack. Are they rebelling against Wolf? CNN will run out of questions. Romney chose to continue with the attacks.
8:44: Romney realizes that after having endured Newt’s attacks in prior debates, he will not let Gingrich escape his turn.
8:45: Audience is siding with Newt on set-up questions. Romney is making himself look very bad to voters by siding with the “Main Stream Media.”
8:46: If Santorum was really good he would join Newt in attacking the moderator and attack Romney at the same time for siding with Wolf.
8:51: Santorum: Unlike Newt, I don’t want a capital gains tax of zero.
Paul: My goal is to get rid of the 16th Amendment. I agree with Occupy Wall Street. When you destroy a currency, there is a transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich. But the solution is not to tax the rich.
8:52: Audience member asks about the future of space flight. This is a great chance for the candidates to link patriotism and optimism in their answer. Romney’s answer is much too weak. This is not a time to be an actuary; it’s a time to be a dreamer.
8:53: Gingrich Speech on Space Exploration: http://www.c-span.org/Events/Newt-Gingrich-Holds-Rally-Along-Florida39s-quotSpace-Coastquot/10737427532/
8:56: Santorum is hitting at the heart of the question. “NASA is where people have to have big dreams.” This question is inspirational. At the same time, he is balancing his answer with appeals to fiscal conservatives. Well crafted.
Ron Paul: “I don’t think we need to go to the moon; I think we might have to send some politicians up there.”
9:00: Newt is caught in hyperbole. Colonizing the moon is not something that is a priority for Americans during this economy. Talking about Mars exploration might be a better idea for Newt, and he does not need to be specific about what he means by exploration.
Romney criticizes Newt for going around the country promising state specific improvements. He may be right about the financial feasibility of theses projects, but Newt understands that voters consider these issues very important. Romney lost South Carolina appearing uneducated about the problems facing the state.
9:04: Santorum: It was OK to go around the country promising improvements when our economy was strong, but the first order of business needs to be getting rid of debt.
9:06: Ron Paul is talking about a more competitive healthcare market as a way to reduce healthcare prices. Even moderate conservatives agree with Paul on this issue. Republicans are against President Obama’s Health Care Reform because of it’s mandate. GOP believes that healthcare will become cheaper if they are closer tied to market rates.
9:07: Romney’s health reform in MA (Romneycare) is almost exactly like Obamacare. The others will undoubtedly go after him for it.
9:09: Fallout from Romneycare will be deadly for Mitt. The wait to schedule appointments with doctors in Massachusetts is incredibly long. A number of hospitals are suing the State of Massachusetts for being improperly compensated for services they provided to their patients.
9:11: Romney cannot be totally blamed for Romneycare, though. In a state where more than 3/4 of state legislatures are liberal Democrats, a Republican governor has no choice but to moderate. Voters can be certain he does not think it’s good policy nationally.
9:13: Romney is correct that there are free riders in every health system, but Santorum is cornering him into admitting to a healthcare mandate. A deadly attack.
9:15: Romney regarding Romneycare: “First of all, it’s not something to get mad about.” He is tone-dear if he thinks this. Voters are unanimous in mentioning the health insurance mandate as their first concern and motivation to get rid of Obama.
9:25: CNN is teasing the question: Why do you think your wife will make the best First Lady?
Expect attention focused on Newt about Callista. This article by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru may highlight Gingrich’s weakness:
9:28: The audience most likely would want to hear that the First Lady will stay out of the way, since many Republicans are angry by Michelle Obama’s activism and pushing of programs.
9:31: Gingrich: “I’m thrilled that Michael Reagan endorsed me and will be campaigning with me here in Florida.”
9:33: Romney defends his vote for Paul Tsongas in MA saying, “any chance that I got to vote against Ted Kennedy or Bill Clinton, I did. I would always vote for a Republican if I could.” He has a point, sometimes you have to vote for the more conservative Democrat in a state where only Democrats have a real shot at winning, until Sen. Scott Brown got elected.
9:37: Paul: “As well intended these sanctions are, they only strengthen the dictator and hurt the citizens.” “I don’t think American’s worry about a dictator under the bed.”
9:40: Romney: “I think we need to have initiatives to build trade relations with Central America.”
9:41: Palestinian-American Republican asks: How can we attain peace when some don’t even recognize Palestinians.
Romney: It’s the Palestinians who don’t want a two state solution.
Romney continues speaking about his belief that there should be no difference between American and Israeli foreign policy.
Gingrich: “Palestinian” was an invention of the 60’s and 70’s. Before that they were Arabs and Syrians.
9:44: Gingrich: When I become president, I will move the U.S. Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem to show that we completely support Israel…
9:49: Gingrich scores with conservative audience when he makes allusions to the “culture war” and “War on Religion.”
9:52: Santorum specifies the unique nature of American democracy, specifying that our Constitutional were believed by the founding fathers to have originated and guaranteed by “G-d.” He quotes most famous line from the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
9:54: Conservatives and Political theorist often mark that the difference between the American Revolution and other revolutions throughout the world differ primarily because of the celestial endowment of rights in the American founding. Important point for conservative voters.
9:56: Ron Paul is trying to say that his poll percentages don’t necessarily reflect actual support because he has more support with registered Democrats and Independents than the other candidates.
Romney believes that this is a critical point in our nations history and that he needs to get it back on track by re-emerging competitively, restructuring Washington, and recreating military superiority.
9:57: Gingrich reminds voters that he presided over the largest Republican takeover of Congress in modern history.
9:59: Romney jumped into the cheering audience instead of going behind the stage toward the spin room as the debate ends.
Recap: Today’s debate was definitely more exciting than the one on Monday.
Santorum= A; Romney= B+; Gingrich= B-; Paul= B.
Although no candidate had a terrible performance tonight, Santorum seems to have edged out the others in tonight’s debate. He competently and calmly articulated his conservative ideals and credentials without being tarnished by the negativity between the front runners. But Santorum seems to have trouble translating good performances and endorsements into poll numbers, I can’t see this debate as being an exception.
Predictably Romney went on the offensive against Gingrich, and even though Newt tried his best to avoid tough questions regarding his accusations toward Romney, he was unsuccessful. Romney devised answers that received a good response from the audience, mostly maintaining his presidential demeanor. He’s best when he defends American citizens’ right to make money without anyone’s criticism. He is the embodiment of success in a free market system, that Republican voters support overwhelmingly. His best moment came when he forced Gingrich to admit that he too had questionable investments. His worst moment was when he brushed off Santorum’s criticism of “Romneycare” as “something not to get angry about.”
In a year when the most pressing issue for Republican voters is to repeal President Obama’s Healthcare Reform Bill, there’s no doubt Gingrich’s campaign will use the clip in a forthcoming attack ad.
Gingrich’s greatest moment in the debate came when he reiterated his unqualified support for Israel, even when being face to face with a voter calling himself a Palestinian-American, whose question took a direct shot at Gingrich for not even recognizing the existence of a distinct “Palestinian” nationality. Gingrich did not back down and restated that he believed that the “Palestinian” nationality was created in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to forever settle who he believes should be controlling the city.
Besides this moment, Gingrich’s performance was not spectacular, which is a problem. Gingrich’s support largely depends on his debates. So far, when Gingrich was average in a debate, his poll numbers sank. Unless Newt’s could campaign himself to another resurgence between now and the primary on Tuesday, Romney seems to have gained the upper hand.
Thank you all for Joining me. Please comment below.