Quiet Time

Whether intentionally or not, NBC News handicapped Newt Gingrich by asking the audience to stay quiet during the Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Florida. In South Carolina, the audience was a source of energy for Gingrich. With their whoops and hollers, they emboldened the former House speaker and cowed his competitors.

By contrast, without an obvious sign of support from the crowd, Gingrich was surprisingly vulnerable to Mitt Romney’s attacks on his record. And as the candidate with the most to lose in Florida, Romney was relentless, aggressively pressing Gingrich on his ties to Freddie Mac. Here’s the exchange in full:

Because there wasn’t an overall direction to Romney’s attacks, it’s hard to say that there was a knock-out moment. But in a state hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, it’s enough for Romney to raise the issue and present Gingrich as an inside man for an industry that ruined life for thousands of Floridians.

What’s more, this exchange illustrated the extent to which we’re watching a two-man race in Florida. In the first 30 minutes of the debate, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul received a combined five minutes of speaking time. Romney and Gingrich dominated the rest.

Unfortunately, with the exception of that back-and-forth, this was a less than thrilling debate. The quality of moderation ran the gamut, from the banal horse-race questions of Brian Williams, to the policy-focused questions of National Journal’s Beth Reinhard—in one of the better moments of the night, she challenged GOP orthodoxy on tax cuts and pressed candidates on the failure of the Bush tax cuts—and the irrelevant questions of Adam Smith from the Tampa Bay Times (who asked about Terri Schiavo).

As for the candidates, they were clearly worn out by the rigors of campaigning. Ron Paul’s answers were even less coherent than usual, and Rick Santorum spoke in an even monotone throughout. Mitt Romney received another question on his tax returns, which he managed to answer without major incident. Of course, there were moments—like when he pushed for a capital-gains tax cut, which would lower his tax rate—that will hurt him in a general election, if he is the nominee.

And, at the moment, his victory is an open question. If you judge Romney on the fundamentals—endorsements, fundraising, and organization—then he’s far and ahead in the lead for the nomination. But, as South Carolina demonstrated, he doesn’t have the mind share of the Republican rank and file; by and large, the GOP base doesn’t like him.

A loss in Florida—where Gingrich is ahead by 5 points—could both exacerbate that problem and prompt Republican elites to re-evaluate their support for his candidacy. Is it wise to back a candidate who can’t win outside the Northeast? And if not Romney, then whom?