Live Blogging the Final Florida Debate

(Sorry about the typo-filled email – just predebate jitters…)

It’s hard to underestimate just how important this debate is for both Mitt and Newt.  How big is it?

It’s Tea Party versus Republican Party.

Main St. vs. Wall St.

Insurgency vs. Establishment.

Rotund guy vs. Not rotund guy

Walmart Look vs. GQ Look

Loose vs. Stiff

Button down vs. Button Up.

Many marriages vs. One Marriage

Need I continue?  I thought not.

In short, it’s big.  What must each candidate do?

Newt needs to trigger some audience response with his patented media putdowns/I can’t believe you are asking such a dumb question routine that worked so well in past debates, but which was missing on Monday.  He needs to press Mitt on immigration, and back off of the Bain attacks, using them only in response to Mitt critiquing his Freddie Mac connnections. He wants to be aggressive, but in a sensitive cuddly way.

Meanwhile, Mitt must stay on the offensive, pushing Newt on the lobbying connection, not backing down on his defense of capitalism, and for Pete’s sake having a stock, short, simple and believable answer on his income taxes.

Don’t forget that Santorum and Paul are bookending the two main participants.  Paul has largely moved on from Florida, but the debate matters to him because it is shown nationally.  He’s already looking ahead to Maine and Nevada.  Santorum, meanwhile has to view this as his last shot to gain traction in Florida and justify staying in this race.  If he can’t turn the polling numbers around, he may have to decide when to get out, and who to endorse.

The crowd looks very un-Newt like – lots of formal wear.  They seem ready to make noise, however.

National Anthem time. Once again, the virtual flag. I’m feeling virtually patriotic.  Mitt and Rick sing, Newt and Ron do not. Ron can’t because he’s sucking on a lemon.

Introductions. Rick’s Mom Lives in Florida.    Wow – she looks great!  And gets a huge ovation!   Newt, as always, pushing the local issues.   Did you know Mitt was married?  To the same woman?  And that he has several kids?  Just in case you forgot.

Did you hear Newt’s strategic cough during Ron’ s introduction?

Immigration is a difficult issue here for all candidates.  The safe route is to take the Romney/Santorum position, in the belief that you win more Republicans by being hard on immigration than you potentially lose among Hispanics.  For what it’s worth Romney was leading among Hispanics in recent polls.

Newt is jumping on Romney’s “self-deport” comment.  Look for Mitt to point out that Newt used that phrase once before.  I still don’t think this is a strong point for Mitt.

So, am I right?: is there no applause allowed tonight, or are these answers simply not resonating?

Doesn’t take long for Paul to segue from immigration to reducing our presence overseas.

Wow, cheers for English as the official language.

Mitt is incensed!  I take umbrage!  That over-the-top language is code word for Newt is erratic!  He was well prepared for that.  Mitt is energized very early.  Two strongly worded rebuttals.  Similar to the exchange they had on Monday.  Remember that after that early clash, the animosity petered out.

Ok, now both sides are equally offended.  Good. What about Rick and Ron?

Is it a winning issue to be pro-trade with Cuba at this point? Or does it largely not matter to most Floridians?  I honestly don’t know.

Intense Rick is back.  When he gets ignored, the passion builds and spills out when finally gets to speak.

I’ve said it before, but Paul is quite willing to stick to principle, even if it costs him support among Republicans.

Oooops!  Mitt supposedly never saw the ad – the one that he endorsed.  And once that is made clear, he decides to embrace it.  Will this remind voters of flip-flop Mitt?  The crowd boos!

Let’s see if Newt has a better answer on the Freddie Mac lobbying issue.  And he does!  Romney owns shares in Freddi Mac!  Take that, Mitt – you forecloser!

Again, these are distinctions that may not resonate with everyone in the audience.    Nonetheless, I don’t think this is a winning issue for Newt.

Et tu, Newt! Romney obviously prepared for Newt’s line of attack. Score one for opposition research.

I just don’t think Newt gains much here with this attempt to say he’s not a lobbyist, he’s a consultant.

Interlude:  Let’s sit back and hear Dr. Paul explain how Freddie Mac is linked to currency reform.

Rick steps up to try to elevate this discourse.  Let’s stop the feuding.  Frankly, I think he’s right.  The freddie mac issue has been so thoroughly hashed through that I just don’t think more discussion is going to help anyone.

Break I.

Initial scoring: I think Mitt has been generally a bit more effective than Newt because he’s both been on the offensive, and he obviously has been prepared for Newt’s ripostes.  But once again he comes across as less than authentic in both his feigned ignorance of his own ad, and his attempt to say he has no influence over his investments.

In my view, if Newt was on his game, he should have said he was a tiny cuddly cat, and Mitt was a big donkey.  Much better than mouse and elephant.

Now Newt wants to elevate the discourse, trying to attaboy Rick.  He tries to use the attack the media tactic that has worked so well in the past.

Oops, Mitt ruins the mood, and invites scrutiny of his overseas accounts.   Is this a mistake?  Once again, Mitt seems prepared for this exchange.  And he rejects Newt’s second effort to call a personal truce.  He’s really on the offensive tonight, much as I suggested he should be.  But he’s really on the offensive.  Is it too much?  He’s showing little interest in calling off the attack dogs.

Rick comes out sounding like a moderate on tax policy here – score some points for him.

Once again, if you ignore the suggestion to rescind the 16th amendment, Paul talks just enough sense to potentially attract broader support.

Bet Paul would ride circles around Newt.  And he scores point with the elderly voters.

Cool – space talk! Newt can go wild here.  Moonbase Newt!   He reprises his Lindbergh analogy.

Newt, to his credit, doesn’t back down from his grandiose ideas.  Mitt says it wouldn’t fly in his company.  Just another harebrained scheme – Mitt dresses down Newt for “spending billions of dollars to make people happy”.   We just have to say no.  Again, Mitt has come prepared.  He’s determined to put Newt away tonight.

Ron reprises his claim that when the government gets involved in medicine, costs rise. Not clear how he’s going to rein in those costs.

A better answer for Newt than he’s been giving on other issues.  Romney reprises Newt’s refrain, and equally effectively for this audience.  He’s having a good night.  But will someone go after him on Romneycare?

Yes!  Rick does! and he hits Newt too – Rick is also having a good night – passionate, energized, but not angry.

Mitt consulted with the “citizens of the nation” in Massachusetts? Rick has his teeth on Mitt’s leg and will not let go. Mitt’s response here really fudges the issue – the nuances he is trying to identify are not going to sell well.  Rick is on fire here.

“It’s not worth getting angry here”?!   Wow, how patronizing can Mitt be? He’s been showing a real mean streak here.  This is a winning issue for Rick – and Newt benefits while Rick does his heavy lifting.

(Newt really likes Ron – he laughs at all of Ron’s zingers tonight.  But can he win over his supporters in Florida?)


Thoughts? It seems to me that there’s been some heated exchanges, but it has also been something of a disjointed debate as well.  Some exchanges went on too long, and others not long enough.  I don’t know whether I blame Wolf for this.  I think Mitt has continued the strategy he unveiled on Monday, which is to attack Newt on every issue as frequently as possible, in an effort keep Newt on the defensive and to hammer home the idea that Gingrich is erratic, with a record that simply won’t sell in the general election.  I don’t think Newt has responded all that well, and in a state that is already predisposed to Mitt, this is not going to help the cause.  That’s my early read.

Mitt has demonstrated in his asides tonight that he continues to be tone deaf on personal interaction – notice the inadvertent dismissing of Ron’s ode to his wife.

Ok, I suppose this question tells us something.  (Although I think I agree with Jeff that there probably was a more useful way to fill this time.)  Rick’s answer struck a nice balance, emotionally, I think.  Just when he was in danger of bringing everyone down he lightened it up.

Mitt misses an opportunity to take Gingrich to task for his claims to be channeling Reagan – but maybe he thinks Newt is on solid ground here?   Newt evidently thinks so –  and he doesn’t miss a chance to blame the “Romney attack machine” for casting doubt on this claim.

I was wondering when this Cuban issue would come up.  Paul has already made it clear by his comments regarding trade with Cuba that he’s basically ignoring Florida.  My assumption of course is support for keeping trade sanctions on a Castro-controlled Cuba is popular in Florida, but I confess I don’t know how widespread that view is there.  But I’m guessing Rick and Mitt’s views regarding Cuba having wider support here than does Paul’s.

Finally, Newt find his old mojo on this answer on Cuba.

This question from Abraham is going to elicit an interesting response.  I don’t think he’s going to be very happy with Mitt’s response. Nor with Newt’s.  Both answers are indicators of the size of the Palestinian vote.  Again, Newt has an applause line. Where has he been hiding?

How would your religious beliefs affect your behavior in office?  Paul: it wouldn’t.  Mitt: I’m a Christian!  (Who speaks to ….uh….Providence).  America the Missionary.

Newt has a chance here to play up his conversion.  Instead, proving he’s smarter than me, he uses it to point out the secular elite’s “war on religion”.    Third strong response in a row.  Newt finishing stronger than he started – will it be enough?

Strong answer from Rick.  He’s having a great debate.  Were the pundits (including me) too quick to write him off?  Remember, most of his gains will be Newt’s losses.


Tough to score this one.  After the disjointed start, I think everyone has picked it up.  Mitt’s been generally strong, with the exception of his typical tone-deaf slips that periodically reveal a different Mitt, and again raise questions about his authenticity.

Final question: prove your electability against Obama.

Paul, not surprisingly, bases his candidacy on the libertarian principles that have guided him so far.

Romney:  I’m an outsider who will bring real change.  I have the right experience.  Boilerplate for him, but it is also a solid response.

Newt:  Ah, finally – the grandkid reference I said Newt needed!  He needs to step it up with this final answer.   Did he do enough?  He seems not quite as energetic as I’ve seen him in previous debates.

Rick understands that in his position, his answer has to be as much about what’s wrong with Newt and Mitt as it is what’s right with him.

And that’s it.  The final debate before Florida votes on Tuesday.  Mitt’s new debate coach clearly told him to step up the energy, and to focus more on attacking Newt.  I think it unsettled Newt a bit early and although Newt came back, this might not have been enough to change the polling trend in Florida.  Romney may have turned a few voters  off, but it probably was worth it if it prevented Newt from scoring points.  On the whole, then, I don’t think this did enough for Newt, which means Mitt is the default winner.

The other wildcard, of course, is whether Rick’s strong performance will give him a boost, and if so, does that also blunt any potential gains by Newt?   Finally, we need to remember that although Paul is not going to compete in Florida, his debate performance is being watched by caucus goers in Nevada and Maine.  I think he did well by those who are likely to have an affinity with his views.

Let’s see how the Talking Heads respond.   Never mind.  The first segment on CNN is about themselves – how Wolf didn’t back down to Newt.  Sigh.  I guess that’s the signal to wrap this up.

Thanks again for all your comments.  I’ll be on tomorrow with the post-debate spin.

Now, go pour a scotch – you’ve all earned it.

Wait, before you go!  It’s probably interesting to guess what the media will choose as the representative segment that will be replayed endlessly in the next few days.  I have to think it will be the Newt-Mitt exchange on the Freddie Mac investments, and the following one on immigration.  The third possibility will be Rick dumping on both of them.  Finally, a few of Paul’s jokes will be sprinkled in.  But in contrast to previous debates I don’t think there are any made for YouTube moments that Newt will be using against Mitt.

Bottom line:  assuming there’s not a backlash against Mitt’s sometimes harsh demeanor, and his often patronizing tones, I think he probably helped himself the most.  With five days left and no more debates, I think it may be enough to prevent any reversal in the most recent polling trends.





  1. Matt, from where I sit here in Florida, most folks seem mildly uninterested. Some smart Republicans dont even know when the primary is. Much less energy than 4 years ago.

  2. Remember, Jack, we had two primaries going last time. So far turnout has been up over 2008 in every Republican contest. I suspect that will hold for Florida.

  3. Housing is a major, major problem here in Fla. Whomever wins this argument will win the debate. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wont help Newt. I would expect Mitt to punch hard on this one.

  4. Andrew Sullivan says:

    Newt is finished. If he can’t win on his own turf – demagoguing in front of a southern debate audience – then he has lost the whole thing.

    I have to agree… too bad, I hoped he’d extend this race.

  5. R – Sullivan has been consistently wrong this entire election cycle. If he says it, it almost always won’t happen.

  6. I think Santorum is having a good debate. He seems less angry and confused than normal. His debate skills have improved so much since the start of this process.

  7. Prof D, good! I hope Sullivan’s bad predictions hold and Newt wins FL, but right now the polls don’t look like that and is Newt changing anything tonight?

  8. Newt, a Kennedy reference, really? Do you now realize he is the baby of the Dems and despised by the Republicans? OUCH

  9. R – I don’t think Newt is winning, no. I don’t think he’s helping his chance to win the primary either. But even if he finishes a close second in Florida, I’m not going to say he’s finished. This process will continue after Florida.

  10. About time Romney explains his stance on people paying for their own health care and not skating free. Strong conservative ethic he should have stood on starting in ’08.

  11. Jack – I’m not sure that his explanation works – he’s basing his defense on some rather nuanced points that I think will get lost on most voters. I think Santorum won that exchange.

  12. Seems like we are not biting real issues tonight (Who’s who of Latinos, Who’s wife is better?)

    On another note – Newt seems to have lost a bit of his skills/strength in these last 2 debates. Mitt-less Mitt seemed to stun him a bit.

  13. Ron comes back to isolationism and monetary policy like a mare to a stable and always deflates his Mo with the crowd. But it is authentic!

  14. Ally – Exactly right. With Paul not running in Florida, the fear is that Ron’s voters will go to Mitt, which is the natural fit for many of them. I think Newt is trying hard not to have that happen.

  15. Chris. I’m in full agreement. But part of the reason Newt is off his game is because Mitt has adapted his strategy to prevent Newt from using these debates as an applause-generating platform. He’s remained on the attack.

  16. Agree with your early read. Disjointed. Probably is Wolf, allowing too many responses. Not a great moderator. Something going on with Newt.

  17. I can’t believe how idiotic it is to ask this first lady question…perhaps there is some hope that it will reveal something about them–but, really? A waste of valuable time!

  18. [Mitt] tone deaf on personal interaction

    yeah, this and his rich boy image are his Achilles heel(s)…

  19. Redirecting his answer from Ron Paul’s Cuba comment to Obama. Would love to see Mitt try what he just did to Wolf instead to Jim Lehrer. Wolf is a terrible moderator.

  20. >Bill @9:24 – What do you think the issue with Newt might be?
    Somehow lost focus? Dinner not sitting well? Campaign wearing on him? (guessing, obviously) The long drawn out answers… don’t get it. Especially after the results from the last debate. He’s slipping in the polls. Needs to step up, not doing it, at least not yet.

  21. I’m from Florida and I would say that it is obviously very important with the rich Cuban contingent, but as far as the general population, it isn’t an absolute issue. Other things are definitely more important.

  22. Submitted on 2012/01/26 at 9:40 pm

    >Bill @9:24 – What do you think the issue with Newt might be?
    Somehow lost focus? Dinner not sitting well? Campaign wearing on him? (guessing, obviously) The long drawn out answers… don’t get it. Especially after the results from the last debate. He’s slipping in the polls. Needs to step up, not doing it, at least not yet.

    Agreed. Although he seems to be picking it up with his last two answers.

  23. Keep it up Newt. Yes, to the santorum/gingrich see-saw. Too bad. Really unfortunate they all waited this long to even touch Mitt. I really mean shortly before Iowa. Almost a waste of debates. Who pays for all these debates?

  24. We outside of FL have to remember there is a two man war on TV, right now. How’s that going? Any of our FL commenters want to weigh in?

  25. OK, this Euro welfare state stuff is totally 90’s. The conservs are running europe, now, if Mitt hasn’t noticed.

  26. Let’s see how the Talking Heads respond. Never mind. The first segment on CNN is about themselves – how Wolf didn’t back down to Newt. Sigh. I guess that’s the signal to wrap this up.

    this isn’t the Newshour

    …Scotch…. don’t mind if I do… caribbean cask balvenie… tasty.

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