JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—The candidates declined easy chances to attack one another with a surprising frequency during last night's debate. "This is a nonsense question," Newt Gingrich said when moderator Wolf Blitzer provided a prime opportunity to attack Romney's tax returns. "Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?" Romney didn't buy the truce-talk. "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here? " he said.
But Romney had his own trouble distancing himself from harsh rhetoric. Blitzer asked Romney what the message was behind an ad that accused Gingrich of referring to Spanish as "the language of the ghetto." "I haven't seen the ad," Romney replied. "I'm sorry, I don’t get to see all the TV ads." He hemmed and hawed, denying any responsibility when Gingrich said it was an inappropriate distortion of his statement. "I doubt that's my ad, but we'll take a look and find out. There are a bunch of ads out there that are being organized by other people," Romney said, alluding to the profusion of super PACs.
The subject was dropped for the moment, but Blitzer circled back shortly thereafter, citing CNN fact checkers who confirmed that the ad in question had in fact originated from the Romney campaign. Indeed, the Spanish language ad closes with Romney saying, "Soy Mitt Romney. Estoy postulado para presidente y apruebo este mensaje." Romney was clearly unprepared to defend the attack last night, only able to respond, "Let me ask the speaker a question. Did you say what the ad says or not? I don't know."
The post-debate spin room lived up to its name. Campaign surrogates from each campaign spun a narrative favorable to their preferred candidate. The politicians I spoke with about the ad exchange should know a thing or two about a presidential candidate's involvement in ad creation: they have both run presidential campaigns opposing Romney.
"I think it's understandable because there's been 85 ads or so from the Romney campaign and just in this last week alone in this big market of Florida there has been a flurry of ads," Tim Pawlenty said when I asked him about the moment from the debate. "So the fact that he couldn't remember one particular ad is understandable."
Fred Thompson—who just endorsed Gingrich this week—had a less than generous take. "He never knows about any of the things that are going on until he gets talking about it and then he knows a lot," Thompson told me. "Everything is either a blind ad or a blind trust. Only he can answer that, but I hope if he ever does become president he's a little bit more aware what's going on in his own name by his own people."