First Republican Florida Debate Liveblog/Recap

Here we go, team. The first debate in Florida, and the first after a huge shakeup in the GOP primary. Who won? Who lost? What will happen next? Keep mashing refresh and find out.

Hello team. Get your scotch & soda ready, it’s time for another Republican debate liveblog & recap. Come on down to the New American Tavern‘s event at Fraunces Tavern in New York City and discuss it with me. I’m the one in the suit and the glasses hovering over a laptop at the bar, scowling.


Despite a giddy kitchen-sink throwing at the former Speaker of the House, ties go to the front-runner, and right now, the front-runner, against all odds, is Newt Gingrich.

Make no mistake – Romney had a good night, his first in awhile. Santorum, too, came out at the very end with a well-rehearsed closing argument that, had it been the actual closing of the debate, would have made the headlines in the morning papers. This will not change the momentum on its own. The problem for Romney is that the race is still tipping towards Gingrich. The upside for Romney is that he stanched the bleeding tonight. A part of that was Gingrich’s conscious decision, electing to play the magnanimous front-runner and referring people to his website rather than contradict what he viewed as Romney’s multiple inaccuracies. Nevertheless, he cleverly defended Medicare Part D, knowing exactly where his base ultimately will be (Florida retirees). But Romney has plenty of places (Newt’s lobbying) where he can go in the intervening days between debates to try and soften Gingrich’s sudden, unsound lead in Florida.

For all his bizarre campaigning (including the new news that he might actually meet with Al Sharpton because the 90s are a thing, you guys), Gingrich knows a thing or two about debating. In Florida, this won’t change anything. But Romney and Santorum’s campaigning and spin capability after it just might. We’ll see.

What struck me most this time around was how much the candidates are borrowing from each other. Gingrich took pages out of the Romney cool-and-easy playbook (at least, as many as Newt Gingrich could possibly to take before exploding in an antimatter reaction). Romney gleefully unloaded opposition research as if he were his old nemesis Rick Perry, but then agreed with Gingrich in playing to the “Santorum style” of pandering to Florida-specific visitation references. Ron Paul, meanwhile, even played towards the middle, making himself into a strange agreeable character in a total departure from the vicious, high-pitched iconoclast he’d played on a stage populated by people like Michele Bachmann (remember her?). We’re coming to the end of something. Florida will determine how it pans out. But we won’t have a better sense of movement until the next debate.


1. Gingrich. Only by default. In the same way that Romney won so many of the early debates, Gingrich came out tonight and did well, but not great. Romney unloaded on him in the first moments, gleefully, but Gingrich had clearly decided on a different strategy than in South Carolina, and Romney’s hope at a flustering moment was wasted. The closest came on Medicare Part D, and if you think senior citizens, that ever-significant part of the Floridian electorate, will abandon Gingrich over his support of their sweet deficit-gorging deal on prescription drugs, you are quite sadly mistaken.

Romney’s attacks on lobbying and how Gingrich, in his eyes, is “influence-peddling,” may stick in a more crowd-friendly debate like the one being offered on Thursday. On the other hand, Gingrich’s retorts might galvanize the crowd as well. Time will tell. What will matter in Florida even more than South Carolina is the spin afterwards.

2. Romney. Mitt Romney is back and does not want to lose this thing. So much so that in the first half-hour he unloaded every single attack line he had on Newt Gingrich. Coming out in a jumble like that blunted his message, and in a quiet audience, he had no chance to position himself in any sort of populist way, so it’s unclear how much they’ll help him going forward. But he has the money and the establishment support to press those attacks. He just didn’t do them quite as effectively as he needed to.

Despite slowing down his mile-a-minute strategy that so benefited him in the earlier debates, Romney comes off as over-eager, like he has something to prove. That plays to Gingrich’s advantage. Gingrich takes time to answer questions – at one point, the bar stood in nervous suspense as Gingrich paused, fearful he might’ve had a “Rick Perry moment,” before he let out a very coherent and “uhm”-free answer on Medicare. Romney needs to learn how to sell his clearly more-electable product in a more Gingrichian package to slide through this firewall. He has one more debate to do it in. Until then, Gingrich still has the upper hand, though the Romney attacks will clearly have some play in the coming days. If they make a difference in the polls, look for Gingrich to suffer mightily.

3. Santorum. It’s time for ol’ Rick to admit that time has run out for him. Sure, he can position himself as the “Goldilocks” candidate, and that will get him through one more debate. He had an incredibly good finish in which he stood up for himself as someone who refused to back down over his values… but when twinned with Brian Williams’ comment that those values led him to lose Pennsylvania by 18 points in 2006, it’s also clear that he’s a creature of the past in the Republican Party. Those types have won the nomination before (McCain, Dole), but never successfully won the presidency.

He has a few more days out on the campaign trail, to hear people tell him they really like him but will vote for an “electable” candidate. Then, barring a performance as consistent as his final answer in this debate, he’ll have to throw in the towel as his poll numbers refuse to move.

4. Paul. At this point, everyone knows that Dr. Paul is off cackling to the sidelines, ready to swoop into weak states with his massive amounts of cash. And tonight, he came out in strange favor of Gingrich in the same way he’s played to Romney in the past. That can’t make his teenage constituents happy. But it is savvy politicking. Paul will be left holding many intriguing cards after Florida. He all-but admitted that he was going to “steal” delegates in Iowa tonight thanks to his superior knowledge of the caucus process. There are many caucus states to come. He didn’t do so great tonight, but being last in this sunshine-centric field could benefit Paul immensely in the contests to come.


9:02 Getting underway. Fittingly, the show before this on NBC was some ridiculous show called “Last One Standing.” First question: electability, to Gingrich.

He namechecks Reagan 1980 (of course), then goes through talking about “the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment.”

Someone at the bar: “He is the Washington establishment!”

9:04 Interesting, Brian Williams asks directly about Newt’s departure from the Speakership right off the bat. Asking Newt the tough questions early gets them out of the way early.

Newt says he “took responsibility” after losing the 1998 midterms. Some woman in the back of the bar shouts “the hell you took responsibility!”

9:06 Ruh-roh, Romneytime. He’s so eager to get his attack lines out that his breath is catching in his throat. He unloads majorly, saying Newt had to “resign in disgrace.” He says it’s about “leadership.”

9:08 This is a very different style of debate, because the audience has been “cautioned” not to applaud. Newt talks about how he doesn’t want to get into the weeds, saying Romney had “at least four inaccuracies” and wants to turn back to Barack Obama, before citing an ad by Huckabee in McCain in 2007.

9:11 Lots of blood but without the audience, Newt kind of flails for the applause that he desperately wants, but doesn’t get – yet Romney doesn’t really seal the deal either. Gingrich

9:12 Santorum time. He’s talking about his message where it’ll be about defeating the President, not about “the candidate.” Hah, right, because his social conservative record won’t be ugly. Ooh, and when Brian Williams questions him on losing by 18%, he says “yeah, well…it was a meltdown year.” Goes on to say that he didn’t duck down (and illustrates ducking down) in the midst of bad things.

9:15 Ron Paul’s turn. He gives a nice answer, and pivots to talking about Newt’s speakership. Interestingly, he says “Newt had a hard job… he had to get those conservatives in line.” But then he says he didn’t recall Newt’s description that way – it was simply, he says, that “he didn’t have the votes” to remain as Speaker, and all this noble talk about sacrifice is malarky.

9:17 Paul-Gingrich love-in! The audience even laughs a bit as Williams asks if Paul will endorse Gingrich, and he says he might, if not for foreign policy. Gingrich hits stuff like auditing the Fed and the gold standard, admits he has a “serious difference” w/Paul on Iran.

9:19 Todd, who runs New American Tavern: “I’m really enjoying [Brian Williams'] moderating style.” I agree. This is really a great debate thus far.

9:20 Romney tax returns debates. Romney says sure, no surprises, and goes on to pivot to tax policy in general. When asked if that’s okay, Gingrich says “sure,” and even notes that his tax rate will be the “Mitt Romney tax rate” of 15%.

Romney asks him a question–is that capital gains, or income? Gingrich says it’d be income – capital gains is zero. Romney points out that then he’d pay no tax (centrist dog-whistle!). Gingrich says “well, if you create enough jobs, so be it.”

9:24 Santorum on the attack: if you believe in capitalism, destructive capitalism, why did you support the bailout? Why didn’t you let the banks fail? Ooh, as the bar says, “maybe we’ll hear something about actual policy now.”

9:26 But no, no chance to respond, because there’s a question to Gingrich on Freddie Mac. He goes on about how he wasn’t a lobbyist, how he hates that term, how he never crossed that “bright line.”

Romney jumps in! “You said you were a historian. You were a consultant.” Gingrich murmurs agreement, “yeah, I was a consultant.” Then he goes on and says “you had an opportunity to say no.”

9:30 Yipes. Major fight, and Brian Williams stays out of it. Romney snaps that Gingrich lobbied. Gingrich asks “how much money did Bain take in while you were running it, Mitt?” and he, deer-in-headlights, says “sure, very substantial,” but pivots, saying that’s irrelevant, and says Gingrich lobbied for Medicare Part D.

Gingrich goes “waitaminute, waitaminute,” but Romney keeps right on him on this, saying Congressmen told him that they were lobbied by Gingrich. When Gingrich says he did this as a public citizen and angrily states that he’s proud to have advocated, “as a public citizen,” for Medicare Part D, Romney says “you can call it what you like, but [when you take money from health companies and then go to Congress], I call it influence-peddling.”

9:36 Ron Paul has gotten one question in the first half hour. Santorum just got his third. He says he “saw this [housing] problem on the horizon.” Sure he did.

He finally says “what’re you gonna do about it,” and says “let capitalism work,” let banks “realize those losses” (how?) then let people take an income tax deduction on the cost of selling their underwater houses.

9:38 Finally to Paul: does the government “owe” anything as a result of the free market? He says: it “owes” its people a free market, saying the crisis was “all government-manufactured,” and the solution is to “get out of the way” so prices come down. Paul rambles for a bit, but hits his point: “guess what happened? [They bailed banks out, and] the burden fell on the taxpayer.”

9:41 Romney gives a Florida-centric answer. Gingrich says “repeal Dodd-Frank tomorrow morning.”

9:44 OK, Florida-centric question – 3 AM phone call reference – what happens when Fidel dies? Romney says “first you thank heaven that he’s gone to meet his maker, and then gone to another place,” getting applause.

9:45 oooh-ahhh, Gingrich plays that card, saying “I don’t think Castro will meet his maker.” Then he goes harder-right, saying he’d take covert actions.

9:46 Ron Paul gives a lovable reply about how “why don’t we talk to people?” Cites talking to the Soviets and the Chinese, about being drafted in 1962, how they can always blame bad things on the United States. Gets applause, even in the quietroom.

9:48 Oh boy! Rick Santorum sees a Cuban-Jihadist conspiracy. Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and JIHAD.

9:49 Now we talkin’ bout Iran, closing the Straits of Hormuz. Romney gives bluster, Gingrich gives bluster, ain’t nothing there.

9:52 Easy question to Romney: “How do you win a war in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban?” Romney gives a nice solid answer, hitting Obama on a few old things, and a few new things (“not monitoring elections” is a new one).

9:53 Ron Paul jumps in. Oh dear, he’s taking his chances on Iran, saying the oil blockade is already an “act of war.” But without the booing he’d get in any other venue, he gets to keep going.

9:58 oh boy, we’re back. And with more reporters, including a dude whose name is “Adam Smith.” But first, a question on the Iran round to Santorum. Very clever: what is the “target list” for Iran, with 30-60 days sustained airstrikes?

Santorum says: “the contrast is what if Iran gets a nuclear weapon and the entire world changes.” Then says “Obama’s Iran policy has been a colossal failure,” it poses a threat to the world, because it’s a “theocracy” equivalent to “Al-Qaeda” (what about Saudi Arabia, which is actually Wahabbist, Rick?).

10:01 First “local” people question: do we need more drilling in Florida, given the huge risk of an oil spill in exchange for creating “maybe” 5,000 jobs? Santorum says, sure! And he pivots to manufacturing jobs, his favorite, and the price of energy. Then he name-checks the Keystone Pipeline.

10:03 another interesting question: why do you advocate for English as the national language, but then run Spanish-language ads? They give it to Gingrich first, who gives a great answer, talking about how English is the language of success, how “Miami-Dade College has 83 languages,” etc. etc. Romney gives a nice follow-up. Paul butts in (he’s realized he has to ask if he wants airtime), saying it should be states’ rights but that “nationally, we should have one language.”

10:06 Oh, here we go, Gingrich on the DREAM Act. He would not veto it if it was just about the military. Sort of the French Foreign Legion argument. Oh, Romney butts in and says he agrees!

10:07 Ruh-roh, Romney says the answer to his immigration plan would rely on “self-deportation,” he says. Which makes the audience laugh quietly.

10:08 to Santorum – is “self-deportation” a valid concept? Santorum says it’s happening because people can’t find jobs, but people who “continually break the law” shouldn’t be rewarded.

He talks about his dad, how his dad was “left without a father for five years” as his grandfather worked legally in the States. So… uh… how about that focus on the family, then, Rick? Two-parent homes?

10:11 After Gingrich takes a question about sugar subsidies and wonks out, Romney does the right thing and changes tactics, saying “this President has failed the people of Florida,” going so far as to saying we’re headed for “a Greece-type collapse.” The audience sounds like it’s laughing, slightly, though… maybe the pivot was more contrived than I gave him credit for.

10:15 The bar has generally been at attention during this quiet debate. A few intriguing shouted comments, but folks’re realizing how serious this is.

10:18 Oh, hey, a Terry Schiavo question, to Santorum. He says he called for judicial intervention at the Federal level. Because, YOU KNOW, he doesn’t believe in that for everyone.

10:19 Oh, this is a great question for Gingrich: how does the Schiavo case square with your view on the judiciary? He ducks it and basically agrees with Santorum.

10:20 Question to Ron Paul, and he gives a nice answer: have a living will, or have a spouse with personal knowledge. He says “I don’t like to go up the ladder.” Usually, he says, “we defer to the family,” and says that the Schiavo case was “way out of proportion.”

10:22 Romney talks about turning NASA into a commercial collaborative. It’s actually a pretty exciting answer. Turn NASA into something that has a combination of commercial and military application.

Gingrich talks about prize-based goals and private-sector competition to those prizes.

They are talking about the “space coast” so much. Oh Gingrich, with his reference to “going back to the moon permanently.” He says it would be “romantic.” Talk to us about MOON MINING, you serial monogamistic dog.

10:25 One other question about taxes to Gingrich: if tax cuts create jobs, why did the Bush tax cuts suck? He says… 9/11! End of conversation. (This is the same argument the Democrats make about the stimulus, so it’s a clever tack to take.)

1o:30 Aww, a question about “the soul of the Republican party” – what have you done to “further conservatism?”

Romney says: first, he raised a family. Second, he worked in the private sector. Third, he ran a conservative model in a liberal state.

Gingrich says: I went to a Goldwater organizing session in 1964. He talks about Reagan, and Art Laffer (LAFFER CURVE!), spent 16 years building a majority in the House… he’s rattling off his resume much quicker, says he’s spent “most of his lifetime” building a conservative majority, he says “we need somebody who will debate Barack Obama” and show “the distance between this administration and conservatism.”

Santorum says: two of these gentlemen supported Obamacare (first Obamacare reference tonight, at the end of things). Decides to attack. Says “when push came to shove, [Romney and Gingrich] pushed.” Everyone in the bar nods in agreement – this is a great answer for this audience. Cameras snap. Santorum is “having a moment.”

Paul says: “we have lost our way completely,” and, my gosh, admits that Republicans passed the much-hated Sarbannes-Oxley bill. “What’s wrong with liberty across the board?” He says “if we follow the Constitution, we’ll all be pretty good conservatives.” Muted clapping from the audience. This might squash Santorum’s nice moment, particularly because these don’t seem to be ending statements…

10:37 Romney wants to say again and again, the MA plan was just a state plan. Gets into the weeds.

10:38 Intriguing question to Gingrich. What scares you about the President. He name-checks both Santorum and Paul, then says “I don’t ask people to be for me, I ask them to be with me.” He talks about what a “sobering, humbling” experience it is to run for President.

10:40 Romney’s question is – if your slogan is “Restore America’s Greatness,” when was America last great? He says it’s still great, but then he lists SEVEN things to “get America working again,” and hits all of them! Nice strong closing.

And that’s it for them. Scroll up for the recap and the candidate rankings.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on more


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