THIS bar stool observation from a stranger on Monday evening may well have nailed it. “I’d like to see Mitt Romney as my president, but I’d love to see Newt Gingrich debate Barack Obama.” Gingrich has something the Republican base values – combativeness, as well as a veneer of near-invincibility on the stage before a live TV audience. Three bouts against Obama would be great theatre. Or so the theory goes.
But is this veneer merely a facade? On Monday, Romney rattled Gingrich over his ethics charges, reminding the audience that it wasn’t partisan Democrats who forced him to resign the speakership in disgrace, but his fellow Republicans. He then pressed Gingrich about his history as an “influence peddler” in Washington. Gingrich didn’t just appear thin-skinned – he was translucent. He responded that he didn’t “want to debate” Romney’s accusations. Of course. If the American people wanted to see the facts, he stated, they should check out his website. They won’t.
Gingrich’s campaign blamed the debate format for his lacklustre performance; audience members in Tampa were asked politely not to applaud. The format even led the former speaker to threaten a boycott of future debates, which have thus far been the oxygen that have fuelled his spectacular comebacks. But Gingrich is a stump speaker, not a debater. He thrives off applause lines, not one-to-one combat. Tonight’s debate in Jacksonville will be more to his liking, but if he requires a rowdy audience, how will he fare against Obama? It’s custom for debate moderators to ask for silence during the presidential debates.
Romney’s attacks against Gingrich are not new, but they may still have legs. Voters actually know significantly less about the candidates than one would expect. But Romney knows that counting on a polling implosion for Gingrich is no sure thing. Romney is still recovering from last week’s failure to release his tax returns, a moment of indecisiveness that created the impression he had something to hide. Having now released them, overcoming this trust deficit is now all the more challenging. In two years Romney has paid around 14 percent in capital gains taxes on earnings of $42.6m. It’s legal, and the figure undercounts his true tax contribution, but voters will ask “is it fair?”
Florida is crucial because it awards all 50 of its delegates to the winner. But much to the chagrin of the candidates, endorsements from Florida’s statewide Republican leaders appear not to be forthcoming. Governor Rick Scott will not endorse, which may not matter. Scott has state-wide approval ratings in the low thirties and only half of Republicans believe he’s doing a good job. Rumours of former governor Jeb Bush endorsing Romney were unfounded and senator Marco Rubio, the Republicans’ most popular official, has also pledged to stay out. Romney’s campaign did get the next best thing – Rubio publicly defended Romney following a Gingrich attack.
The main lesson from last week is that momentum can carry you towards the finishing line, but it can also force you to stumble. Like Romney in South Carolina, Gingrich will find that poll leads are worth little if you fail to respond appropriately to reasonable questions. Unemployment and housing foreclosures in Florida are fourth and second highest in the country respectively. Some Floridians are looking for miracles. The least Gingrich can do is provide credible answers.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt