What Happened at the GOP Debate in Florida?

The stakes were high at the 19th GOP presidential debate on Thursday, with the two front-runners, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Governor Mitt Romney, virtually in a dead heat in the polls going into the debate. As in South Carolina, where 90% of the voters said that the debate had some impact on who they voted for, the Florida debate will likely impact the outcome of the Florida primary next Tuesday.

The debate centered around several key issues that will be critical when Florida Republicans go to the polls next week, notably: immigration; Latin American issues; and the space industry. Yet it was also a chance for the candidates to discuss a huge range of topics: the weight of support was thrown behind Israel when a Palestinian stood up to ask a question regarding the Israel-Palestine situation; the role of religion allowed each of the potential nominees to reiterate their belief in central role of the founding documents in the modern governing process; there was even a slightly lighter discussion as to why each of the candidate’s wives would make good first ladies. Here are the key moments and highlights:

Romney vs. Gingrich. As expected, many of the key clashes in this debate were between Romeny and Gingrinch, on issues ranging from immigration to healthcare. The dynamic between the two was set at the start, when Romney responded to Gingrich’s recent claim in an attack ad that the Governor was the most “anti-immigrate candidate," a description that Romney called “repulsive." In a well-conducted response, Romney criticised the “over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long," and told Gingrich that “difference in opinion does not justify labelling people with highly charged epithets." Later on in the immigration debate, Gingrich continued promoting his immigration ideas as connected to preserving family, to which Romney responded that “[America’s problem] is not eleven million grandmothers."

When taxes inevitably came up, Gingrich tried again to go after Romney, accusing him of owning shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. After pointing out to the speaker the difference between stocks and bonds, and explaining mutual funds, Romney went on to show that there was ‘pot-calling-the-kettle-black’ going on as Gingrich also invested in such companies. While Gingrich managed to summon up the humorous response that comparing the two investments was like “comparing a tiny mouse to a giant elephant," the slightly hypocritical nature of the attack will likely only hurt Gingrich. Romney also accused Gingrich of just pandering to the electorate in each state when the subject to NASA was brought up, effectively saying that the Speaker was simply going from “state to state and telling the others what they want to hate." Yet Gingrich did win a key point on the topic of an attack ad that Romney denied knowledge of, but was paid for by his campaign, providing a slightly embarrassing moment for Romney at the start of the debate.

Ultimately, Romney came out of these spats on top. In through his answers, which were well-crafted and reasonable, and his actions, even as simple as actually looking at Gingrich when he was speaking with him (something Gingrich failed to do on many occasions), Romney ended the debate as he started it – seeming much more presidential than his key rival.

Santorum surprises. Though his Iowa performance certainly set him up as a legitimate candidate and kept him in the race, Santorum has been lacking momentum in recent weeks. However, his performance in the debates tonight was good and it was in a tone which resonated well with the audience. After several exchanges between Gingrich and Romney, Santorum called to “set aside the petty personal politics.” Santorum praised his rivals: “Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies – and that’s not the worst thing in the world … Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard. And you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues.” The audience took onto the idea, and when Blitzer went on to ask a question regarding Gingrich’s opinion on Romney’s tax returns, not only did the audience boo the moderator, but Gingrich tried to capitalize on Santorum’s previous plea and bring the stage together in a plea to focus on the real issues at hand.

Beating Obama. It was the last question, and throughout the debate, and notably on the discussion of healthcare, this was a key theme. Paul noted that his message of freedom would appeal not only to Republicans but also to many members of the electorate because it “includes free markets and civil liberties," and the belief that you “should have the right to run your life as you choose” (a feature of his candidacy that people interested in the Americans Elect project have noted). Romney used a ‘Washington outsider’ argument to argue that he would be the best person to bring “dramatic and fundamental change in Washington." Gingrich, in contrast, noted his successes in Congress and his participation in Republican electoral sweeps. Both Santorum and Gingrich attacked Romney by saying that he would be too close to Obama in regard to the question of health reform, an issue Santorum stressed was one that “[the Republicans] can not give away in this election.” Santorum framed the general election around the idea of providing stark difference to Obama, stating that Romney and his ‘Romneycare’ “does not provide the contrast we need in this election." Romney stood his ground, saying that it is “not worth getting angry about” and several times attempted to draw clarification between the plans. But the attacks from Santorum and the way it played (or rather did not play) with the crowd, suggests that this will continue to be a difficult point of distinction.

Paul’s presence. Ron Paul seemed much more relaxed and comfortable than in previous debates. Crafting many of his arguments in his typical pro-freedom and anti-government framework, he seemed at many times to be above the fray of what Santorum called the “petty personal politics," and his comments for the most were well received by the crowd there. The jokes he cracked were certainly much better than President Barack Obama's spilled milk attempt on Tuesday; challenging the other candidates to a “25 mile bike ride in the heat of Texas” when asked about his health, and suggesting sending politicians, not people, to the moon when asked a question about NASA.

Lunar colony. After Gingrich’s suggestion earlier in the week that he would strive to build a colony on the moon, the subject of space was bound to come up, especially given the large space industry in Florida. Romney laughed the idea down by saying that if an executive came to him suggesting that spending “billions” of dollars on a colony on the moon, “I’d say, ‘You’re fired'." Santorum talked of inspiring young people under the idea of America as a “frontier nation," and Paul quipped, “I don’t think we should go to the moon … I think we should send some politicians up there." Gingrich responded by quoting JFK, an interesting choice considering he later criticised Romney by trying to put the Governor and Ted Kennedy in the same box.

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