Monday night witnessed the third Republican presidential debate in a week’s time.
Much has happened in that brief timespan. Two candidates (Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry) dropped out. A third (Mitt Romney) saw an aura of inevitability vanish. A fourth hopeful (Newt Gingrich) again rose to the status of improbable frontrunner – again, scaring the dickens out of his party’s establishment.
And so the four surviving candidates snowbirded it to Florida, site of a Jan. 31 primary – and a new set of numbers underscoring the changed fortunes of this race.
A Rasmussen poll taken Sunday, the day after the South Carolina vote, showed that a 22-point Romney lead in the Sunshine State is now a 9-point deficit (about 4 in 10 voters are undecided and 1 in 3 three are open-minded, so think of this as both a snapshot and a moving picture).
Another survey, by Public Policy Polling, has the Florida contest at Gingrich 38%, Romney 33% – a 12-point gain for Gingrich and an 8-point drop for Romney in the last week.
Something different about the next vote: Ron Paul isn’t playing in Florida – too big, too expensive (“frugal” being a word Paul used to describe his campaign’s approach after Saturday night’s results). How does Paul shirk Florida, but save face? Easy. A pro-Paul super PAC will spend where the candidate chooses not. Still, Paul’s absence makes this more of a one-on-one between Gingrich and Romney, to the extent that Rick Santorum is still relevant.
All of which was on display Monday night in Tampa.
- Those looking for a vastly different Romney – he of previous shaky debate performances – came away disappointed. A story in Monday’s New York Times noted that Romney’s getting help from a debate coach who worked for Michele Bachmann in this cycle and John McCain in 2008. Romney was aggressive in going after Gingrich on his Freddie Mac consulting gig. But it wasn’t a game-changer. Has Romney been too gosh-darned nice in these debates? HE-double hockey sticks yes.
- Gingrich is simply better in one-on-one exchanges. Example: Romney went after Gingrich for House Republicans losing seats in 1998; Gingrich fired back that Republicans lost seats while Romney chaired the Republican Governors Association. That’s quick thinking – and good campaign oppo research.
- Your daily dose of Paul swimming upstream on American foreign policy: suggesting, in this Tampa debate, that’s it’s time to start talking to Havana. Notice the audience didn’t boo. Then again, Paul (and Santorum, for that matter) wasn’t much of a factor in this debate.
- Most interesting thought of the night: Gingrich’s suggestion that the feds introduce a new round of r&d to Florida’s Space Coast. The former Speaker plans a big speech on America’s space program later this week – remarks certain to be lofty (pun intended) but maybe not all that practical.
A good night for: Gingrich. Romney came after him hard with the Free Mac lobbying accusations. Gingrich calmly deflected his challenger.
A bad night for: Santorum and Paul, who went largely ignored. The two might as well have used the time to sample some downtown restaurants, for when they’re back in town later this summer.
Florida votes a week from Tuesday and then the pace slows through February.
Meanwhile, as for what the future holds for Romney, some possible scenarios:
- Built to Like, Not Love. Call it the Mondale Scenario. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale took a standing eight-count in that year’s New Hampshire primary. He recovered from that surprise setback and went on to win the Democratic nomination, but it as clear that his campaign was long on organization but short on passion.
- Built to Adapt. Call it the Bush Scenario. The elder President Bush lost in Iowa, rediscovered his mojo in New Hampshire. The son lost in New Hampshire and got his groove back in South Carolina. A few weeks ago, Romney’s campaign envisioned Florida as their man’s southern firewall – only not the way, which would be blowing a lead then getting it back.
- Built to . . . No Early End. Call it the Scenario No Sane Republican Wants. Rival Democrats dueled all the way to the convention floor in 1968 and 1980. So did the GOP in 1976. In each case, the party lost in November. As entertaining as a drawn-out process can be (just ask Barack Obama, but not Hillary Clinton), the reality is the winner faces considerable fence mending – which needs to begin long before the national convention.