Live Blogging the Florida Debate

Seems like we’ve done this once or twice, or 16 times before.  But here we are again….as always, join in on the comments section if you are so inclined.

As I noted in the previous post, I have to think the dynamics of this might be different, if only because Romney can’t continue acting as if he’s the front runner who only has to attack Obama.  But it will also change because Florida has a different electorate – more diverse economically, ethnically and racially.

Brian Williams is moderating – I think this is his first hosting job in a long while.  Keep in mind that Paul is not competing in Florida, so his messages will be directed at the upcoming caucus states as much or more so than on Florida.

9:05 – Williams wastes no time in getting to the questions.  Is Gingrich electable?  Note that Romney’s negative line of attack in campaigning has been to stress Newt’s instability, and whether that makes him less likely to win election.

Newt is trying to inoculate himself against the ethics-driven decision to resign his Congress seat – Newt did the “honorable” thing and took responsibility for the 1998 election debacle.

Romney is not deterred – The Speaker is an “influence peddler” who resigned in “disgrace”.  Sitting with Nancy Pelosi on a sofa!   The imagined visuals are arresting.  For a Mormon, them’s really fighting words.

Interesting role reversal here – Newt trying to keep to the high road.

9:09 Can Mitt win the conservative vote?  Bad question Brian – in case you didn’t realize it, Newt resigned in disgrace!  Did I say that before?  And did I mention his lobbying?  No more Mr. Mitt-Guy!   He’s on the attack…

Wow, talk about a role reversal – now Mitt says he’s not going to unilaterally disarm?  Didn’t Newt just say that before South Carolina?  Is Santorum or Paul even on stage?

Ah, here’s the headless, er…. Rick Santorum.  What is his path to victory?  He’s got plans. Williams point out he got crushed in his last Senate race.  Rick is proud that he stood up and got crushed…much like he’s probably doing now.  (Of course, he doesn’t say he was elected in the Newt-inspired Republican sweep in 1994.  Political winds can push you up and they can bring you down.)

Paul’s point regarding Iowa is completely true – the caucus results hardly matter in terms of delegates at this point.

Interesting here that Newt and Ron are making kissy-kissy.  This isn’t the first time that Newt has reached out to Paul’s voters – this is crucially important in Florida since Paul is not competing in this winner-take-all state.

Couple of you have noted just how quiet the crowd is.  Not sure what the explanation is.

9:23 Williams probes Romney on taxes.  Again, Romney’s not so fluid on this.  Why the heck is he pointing out that he won’t pay a dollar more than he owes – he doesn’t think the public wants a president who pays more than they owe?  What does that mean?  For a smart guy, Romney can be remarkably tone deaf.

Wow, why is Romney pointing out that he only pays capital gains tax?   And why is he balking at the 12 years?  For someone who is trying to put an issue behind him, he’s saying things that will keep it in the public eye.

Oh my.  Going on about how he had to pull himself up by his gucci boot straps is not really selling well, I don’t think.  He sounds like he’s apologizing for his wealth even when he says he’s not apologizing.  Again, the divide here is that he’s speaking the language of Wall St. – not Main St.   He talks investment – Joe Sixpack thinks in terms of jobs.  He’s not making this connection very well.

9:28  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the distinction between lobbying and consulting is lost on most people.  I guess Newt has to make the case, but I can’t believe he really wants to discuss this point.  If it walks, quacks, ….etc.

Romney sees this as well.  He’s not going to let it go.  Newt should just say yes, I misspoke, I wasn’t a historian, I was a consultant.  Let’s agree on that and move on.

Wow, is this badgering by Mitt working? Now I wonder if he’s pushing this too far.

Uh oh, Medicare is the third rail of politics in Florida.  Romney is going to hammer away on this premise.

Uh, Brian – aren’t you a moderator? Do something!



Santorum is ready to go into Rick-Rage I bet, while Paul could be asleep.  This is actually a riveting exchange between Mitt and Newt, and it is following exactly along the lines I suggested Mitt had to utilize – hammer away at Gingrich’s record, particularly the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac ties – a sensitive topic in Florida where the housing crash was particularly severe. But he’s not very smooth when he attacks and even here he seems driven by polling more than genuine outrage at Newt.  You have to be able to fake sincerity, and he doesn’t do it well.

(Is the flag lapel new for Rick?)

I don’t think everyone follows Paul’s reasoning, but they like the tune.  Every fifth phrase resonates – “erase debt”, “closed doors”, …. .  But the finer points of free markets?   Not so much.

Finally someone pushes back on the idea that if Dodd-Frank is repealed, good things will follow. What about prior to Dodd-Frank?

Good, Williams get it and pushes.  See?  Romney actually has a response, but until Williams pushed him, you wouldn’t know what types of regulations he would support.

Williams:  Isn’t Fidel Castro out of power?

First applause of the night: Fidel going “to another, uh, land”.   Cuba is the ‘red meat’ of Florida’s Republic Hispanic voters.  Newt one ups Mitt on where Fidel should go after death.   Not a lot of daylight between Mitt and Newt on the post-Fidel era.  Let’s ask Paul what he thinks.  Paul gets some applause, but it’s really a dated response.  The Cuba issue has less to do with the Cold War and more about the post-Fidel era.

9:51 Closing the Strait of Hormuz.   How to respond?  Gives Mitt a chance to rip Obama for his proposed defense cuts.  I’m guessing we’ll get some attaboys from Newt and Rick seconding Mitt’s declaration that would be an act of war.

Still, Newt has  a way of couching his answer to make it more interesting than when Mitt does it.  “Americans don’t want to go to war….but…”

Paul’s blockade analogy never gets at why someone puts a blockade in place.  Presumably the cause matters when trying to decide whether the blockade is just.  This is where he’s really closer to Democrats than Republicans.

BREAK TWO – 9:56 p.m.

So far, Rick’s has been overshadowed – he’s going to have to pick up his participation by trying to force is way into the conversation.  After that initial clash, which I guess Mitt gained the most from, both he and Newt have been relatively tame.  Paul has been Paul – not changing minds either way.   I think Newt has been on the defensive a bit more than Mitt, but I’m not sure Mitt has come across as any more likable.

Williams start by giving Rick a chance to go nuclear.

Reinhardt is a National Journal reporter, but she has local roots. Let’s see what the local angle is.   Good question – how to balance keystone vs. clean waters.  Nice answer by Rick I thought.

Another great question – English only?  If so, why do you speak “campaignese” in many languages.  I think Newt’s answer is both politically acceptable and actually makes sense. Mitt agrees.  So does Paul, at least regarding a single national language, but he grants exceptions for state-based allowances on local ballots.

The Dream Act – at some point someone has to press Romney on his immigration policy.  It could be a sensitive point for him in Florida.

Adam Smith picks up my point.   Self-deportation? Is that a formal policy? I don’t think that’s going to play.  This is not a great answer for Mitt.  But Rick doesn’t really make an issue of it – he’s a hardliner on this issue as well.

10:12 Smith – Will you end sugar subsidies?  Gingrich says the beet sugar vs. cane sugar story is fascinating. Is it?  Does anyone get that answer?  I don’t.  What’s the difference?  Did he just dodge this issue?

Mitt decides to answer his own question, based on his conversations with 8 people.  Eight? Is that a lot?  No plans for NASA?  Where did this come from?  It sounds like he’s decided to get all his talking points out before time runs out.

Smith: rebuilding the Everglades.  Do you think Paul has any knowledge about this issue?  Didn’t sound too convincing to me. I think he’s already thinking about Maine’s shipyards.  He’s pretty much written Florida off, judging by his acknowledgment that he’s not up on the Cuban issue.


This has calmed down considerably.  It’s hard to tell how this is playing before a Florida audience, in part because that audience is so variegated.  There’s not one dominant perspective.

10:20 A Terry Schiavo question?  I guess it’s a good way to get Santorum to reconcile his interventionist policy in her case versus his state’s right stance.  Santorum seems to give a sound answer. I’m not from Florida, but is this issue still resonating?

As always, Gingrich is able to frame this issue in a way that makes his response, however simplistic, seem eminently reasonable:  didn’t she deserve the appeal protection that we give death row prisoners?

Reinhardt:  I love the space program – but should it be a priority in a time of looming deficits?  I want Newt to talk about building a moon base!

This is the type of area where Big-Think Newt can shine.  I want him to riff here……hmmm,  offering prizes, space stations, moonbases – “incentivizing visionaries”… classic Newt. Rocketman!


10:28  I’m assuming we get closing statements?  My instant read is this debate, by itself, is not going to drive opinion in any single direction.  Nor will it firm up opinions. I see this as an opening skirmish in which candidates try out strategies to see what works and what doesn’t. In that vein, I think Newt has to shore up his Freddie Mac defense and his “why I left Congress answer”.  Mitt is still weak on taxes, and on his defense of wealth more generally.  But there’s only so much one can do about some of these things.  Mitt will never be warm and lovable. Newt can’t explain Freddie Mac, or three marriages, or his ethics charges, completely away.

Final question: prove your conservative bona fides.

Romney: raised five kids. Balanced a budget in Massachusetts.  (Massachusetts as a model?  Does he mean health care?  Oops!)

Newt: I worked with a lot of cool Republicans.  Talked about big ideas.  Developed a conservative movement.  I think that latter point – building the Republican party so that it could retake Congress  – is one of his stronger point.  He needs to play that up.

Santorum (interesting that Williams basically tees this one up for him!):  Gingrich is pro-health mandates.  Mitt is for cap-and-trade.  They aren’t true conservatives. Wall St. bailouts backed by Mitt.  This is a line of attack Rick has to take.  Still, I see that headless chicken  running…..but I’m surprised Newt and Mitt don’t adopt more of the Tea Party populist rhetoric.

Paul – His answer gets to the essence of his candidacy: he’s a different type of conservative.  He’s a libertarian conservative.  This is really a very telling answer.  And it gets applause.

Romney: Kennedy had to take a mortgage out to defeat me?  Is this a real selling point?  I’ve said it before, but sometimes he just seems so politically tone deaf.  At least he has his answer to Romneycare down.

Gingrich: do you see what he’s doing here?  He is laying the foundation for getting Santorum voters (and Paul’s too) when they drop out – he’s trying to isolate Romney’s support to the Wall St.   crowd.

Romney: Nice start: “We are still a great nation”.     His seven-point plan is another nice touch, except his claim to oppose crony capitalism rings a little hollow.

And that’s it!  10:42 and it’s all over.

I gave my summary a bit earlier, so rather than repeat it, let me just summarize the summary: I don’t think this was a defining debate.  Instead, I think it is better viewed as an opening skirmish. Both sides will go home, see what their focus polls and surveys show, and recalibrate for Thursday’s debate.  Now, it’s time for the spin game.


A couple of things to keep in mind.  Clearly, one aspect of Romney’s strategy is to try to portray Gingrich as unstable, erratic, prone to fits of grandiosity.  But that aspect of the attack didn’t seem to work.  Mitt scored points, but Newt seemed able to appear poised, basically suggesting that he wasn’t going to sink to Mitt’s level.  The second point to remember is that Gingrich has the polling momentum.  It’s not enough for Mitt to trade blows – he has to bring Newt down, and reverse the momentum.  Nothing that happened tonight did that, in my view.

Third point: I thought it was interesting that Newt pushed Mitt on whether Bain worked with the government which Romney denied.  I’m wondering what Mitt’s tax forms are going to show when he releases them, and how far back he’s going to go, and whether he also has some government contracts in Bain’s past.

Fourth – In terms of made-for-YouTube moments, I thought Mitt produced more of them with his weird “accusation” that under Newt’s tax plan he’d pay zero taxes!  Is that a slam against Newt – or a reminder that Mitt pays only 15% because his income is all taxed as capital gains?

Finally, I don’t think Rick did nearly enough to convince me he has a viable way forward.  Newt is clearly trying to extend the olive branch to both of them.  Is there something going on behind the scenes?

Questions, questions…..we’ll try to answer some tomorrow.

As always, great participation.  Good to see new people joining in!

More tomorrow….time now for a scotch. You’ve earned it.

Don’t forget: State of the Union tomorrow night. The fun just won’t stop.




  1. Reaching across the aisle to fight for conservative principles….fine, but I don’t think the Tea Party and true conservatives want to reach across the aisle at all? ….

  2. I know momentum doesn’t exist in politics. However, it seems that looking at the polls the win in S.C. was big for Newt. Is that because there are so many late deciders this year and they want to be on the winning side? Or do they see something in Newt that wasn’t there 2 weeks ago?

  3. Paul is pointing out more ‘hypocrisy’ in the conservative spending arguments….I sort of appreciate his reminding folks of this….

  4. As a Mass person, I personally am not impressed by his Ted Kennedy reference, but I bet FL likes it a lot more…

  5. Ron’s point about the blockade against Iran is that a blockade is an act of war, against civilians. Acts of war are only justified if they are in a response to an attack, which this was not (and he is ready to explain how America has been the aggressor in the history of Iran-American relations). Anyway, if you are going to commit an act of war, it should be authorized by Congress and aimed at the government, not the citizens.

    Regarding Cuba, his point is that it was a flawed policy to begin with, and that it makes even less sense now. Moreover, it has made them less free in two ways: by restricting their markets, and by allowing the socialist government to maintain support because it can posture as the heroic David to America’s Goliath, living off of popular animosity towards us.

  6. Jeff,

    I understand that under international law a blockade is considered an act of war. But that ignores the more important point which is that the U.S. wouldn’t impose this blockade unless Iran carried out its threat to block the Strait of Hormuz – itself a questionable action under international law. The analogy Paul used in the debate completely ignored this. Most Republican voters intuitively understand this, which is why his political upside is so limited. Without casting judgment on his foreign policy views, the fact is that politically, he’s perceived as a fringe candidate on this issue by most Republicans.

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