The Debate: Gingrich and Romney in a Draw

Last night’s GOP debate in Jacksonville, Florida displayed a surprisingly pugnacious Mitt Romney, a performance by Newt Gingrich that was strong but not dominating as he had been in earlier contests, some funny lines from Ron Paul, and a very strong, but seemingly irrelevant, performance by Rick Santorum. The question is whether anything said last night will make a difference in next Tuesday’s vote.

If these debates, and this was the 19th such debate, have any value at this point, at least they serve to force the candidates to step away from their own ads. Both of the frontrunners, Romney and Gingrich, had to acknowledge some mistakes in their advertisements and assertions. Santorum is not running ads in the Sunshine State with its expensive and multiple media markets, and Cong. Paul is now clearly an also-ran.

Gingrich has a couple of missed opportunities last night, and they flowed from the inherent weakness of his non-traditional campaign style. Gingrich had been hounded by Romney for his consulting contract with Freddie Mac and Gingrich hit back this week by pointing out that Romney had invested in mutual funds, part of which were invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two institutions are considered toxic in GOP circles because of their role in bringing on the financial crisis. But, Romney struck back hard, asking Gingrich is he had looked into his own investments. It turns out, Romney alleged, that Gingrich also had investments in mutual funds that, in turn, invested in the two mortgage giants. Gingrich, surprised, replied that the comparison was inexact, “like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant.” It was a weak response. A better response would have been, “Gov. Romney, my point was not that your investments indicated any degree of corruption. My point was that for weeks you have been trying to tar and feather me because of my association with Freddie Mac and, all the while, you had investments in both agencies too.” Why was Gingrich not ready with such a response? Because, his non-traditional campaign apparently lacks a good opposition researcher, and the first person a campaign conducts opposition research against is their own candidate. You have to be ready to answer likely charges. Gingrich’s flat-footed response last night was his single weakest campaign moment of the year.

Gingrich also failed to really go after the establishment Republicans who have been hurling bombs his way. Gingrich is now the candidate of the Tea Party, and he may be able to ride that tiger all the way to the nomination. The Tea Party has a suspicion of all establishments, Democratic or Republican, intellectual or governmental. Gingrich should be wearing these attacks from the pooh-bahs in DC like a badge of honor.

Romney had some very good moments. During a discussion of immigration, after calling out Gingrich for suggesting Romney was going to deport grandmothers, Romney said, “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” a response that garnered applause from the crowd and took the air out of Gingrich’s effort to distinguish his immigration stance from Romney’s. Romney also, finally, gave a full-throttled defense of his success in business. Think what you might of such success, previously Romney seemed way too defensive when discussing his enormous wealth. This is a GOP primary: They like rich folk.

But, Romney had two moments that could cost him greatly, one in the near-term and one revealing a character flaw that could hurt him in the long run. First, after a testy exchange with Santorum about the individual mandate that was at the heart of both Romney’s health care reform and President Obama’s reform, Romney said: “It’s not worth getting angry about.” If anyone needed confirmation that Mr. Romney is not what you would call a Tea Party stalwart, there it is. They are very angry about the individual mandate. The moment undoubtedly revealed Romney as he really is: cool, calm, collected. The question is whether that is what the GOP primary electorate wants in a candidate this year.

The bigger problem for Romney came when he claimed not to have heard an ad his campaign is running on Spanish-language radio that castigates Gingrich for referring to Spanish as a “language of the ghetto.” Gingrich, correctly, said he had never said those words about Spanish but was making a more general point about the need for people to learn English as a means of integrating into American society. Wolf Blitzer cam back to point out that this ad was not from a SuperPAC, it was from Romney’s own campaign and finished with the legally required tagline, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.” After the debate, the spin-masters said that no candidate necessarily sees or hears all their different ads, which may be true.

The key point here is not that the ad was wrong on the facts. The problem is that there is something in Romney’s character that refuses to take responsibility for any snafus. He was not responsible for all those anti-Newt ads in Iowa: A SuperPAC ran them. He was not to blame because his health care overhaul provided taxpayer funded abortions: The courts made him do it. He was not responsible for all those jobs that were lost during his tenure at Bain Capital: It was the “creative destruction” of capitalism. He was not responsible for all those foreign investments: His “trustee” made those decisions. Of course, in the private sector, when you do not have the national press corps examining you, it is not uncommon to see people dodge responsibility for their actions, but in a campaign, repeatedly blaming others for anything untoward in one’s own resume looks exceedingly weak.

Voters understand that life is complex and that political opponents can seize on a very small item in one’s career and turn it into an effective attack ad. In one campaign I worked on, our candidate had not seen, or misplaced, or forgot about his city’s quarterly bill for garbage pick-up. No big deal: The next quarter, the bill came with a prior balance and he paid the full amount. A city bill for garbage pick-up is sort of a tax, so this minor incident became a television ad saying our candidate “didn’t pay his own taxes!” But, they want their president to be someone who stands up and takes responsibility for his own mistakes and those of his campaign subordinates. They work for him, not the other way round.

So, to roundup, Gingrich did not deliver a knock out punch as he did in the debates leading up to the South Carolina primary. And, he needs to hire an opposition reseracher so he is not caught flat-footed again. But, last night’s debate may have revealed a more long-term problem for Romney. He really doesn’t see why people are angry about the individual mandate, which means he really doesn’t understand to temper of his own party. And, the man needs to stand up and stop blaming others for his mistakes.

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