We learned so many things during Thursday night’s GOP debate in Jacksonville. Callista Gingrich would be a swell first lady because she plays the French horn and loves the arts. If you’re a Palestinian-American, don’t bother asking a Republican candidate in Florida to acknowledge your humanity, or even your existence. Immigration policy is really all about undocumented grandmothers. Rick Santorum used to go to church with the governor of Puerto Rico. And Ron Paul is itching to take on the other candidates in a 25-mile bike ride in the heat of Texas.
The last debate before the Florida primary was, even by the standards of the 18 debates that preceded it, a stunningly vapid event—thanks largely to the preponderance of The View-level questions that moderator Wolf Blitzer and Jacksonville audience members asked. (Let’s not bother with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, poverty or income inequality; we must know why the candidates think their spouses would make the best first ladies!)
But the most important lesson came early, in exchanges over immigration policy and wealth: Mitt Romney, wonder of wonders, has learned to debate. As the Prospect’s Harold Meyerson tweeted: “Hundreds of millions of dollars and Mitt Romney has finally hired a good debate coach.” (Indeed he has: It’s Brett O’Donnell, a former top strategist for Michele Bachmann and debate coach for John McCain in 2008.)
At the end of an early exchange over immigration—with Gingrich assuming the role of the compassionate conservative who doesn’t want to deport undocumented grandmas and grandpas—the former Massachusetts governor delivered the smartest retort of the night, aimed straight at Gingrich: “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.” He also managed to work in, twice, the fact that Senator Marco Rubio, the hero of Florida Republicans, had denounced a Gingrich ad calling Romney “anti-immigrant.”
When Gingrich hit him for investing in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Romney made the hearts of his debate-prep team leap with gladness, pointing out that Gingrich also has investments in them. Here, he caught his challenger unawares—and managed to deflect attention from Gingrich’s pertinent question about how much Romney, who’s relentlessly attacked Gingrich for his Freddie Mac consulting contract, has made from his investments in the FMs.
Only once was Romney flustered and stuttering—and it was Santorum who shook him up, not Gingrich. The subject was Romney’s bugaboo: health care. While he showed that he can counterpunch effectively on most issues, he still hasn’t figured out a way to distinguish Romneycare from Obamacare—maybe because there isn’t a way. It’s impossible for Romney to defend the Massachusetts system and, in turn, accuse Obama of supporting socialized medicine for basically copying that system. It’s a liability that will haunt him in the fall, if Romney faces Obama in debates.
The finest moments of the night belonged to Santorum and Paul, who flashed the fastest 76-year-old wit in America when Blitzer asked yet another dumb question: What would you say if you were president and Raul Castro called you up? “Well,” Paul croaked, “I’d ask him what he called about.”
But that’s just fine with Romney; his only worry in Florida is Gingrich. Newt, whose momentum from South Carolina has dwindled, needed to replicate his knockout performances in last week’s debates to regain his groove and give Romney a close contest next Tuesday. He didn’t come close.