In Tampa, an Aggressive Romney and a Quiet Gingrich

The former Massachusetts governor hits Gingrich hard, but this time there's no notable flare-up from the fiery former speaker.

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"Angry Newt" took the night off. In a striking role reversal, Newt Gingrich looked more like a firefly than a firebrand in a high-stakes debate Monday night, while rival Mitt Romney called the surging former House Speaker a disgraced, influence-peddling, Washington insider.

Somebody must have awakened the cool-and-nonchalant Romney out of his debate slumber and told him the GOP nomination was slipping away. Gingrich stunned the political world -- and frightened much of the GOP establishment -- with a landslide victory in South Carolina on Saturday night that erased Romney's lead in national and Florida polls.

The former Massachusetts governor waited 30 seconds to attack Gingrich and then used the phrased "resigned in disgrace" twice in the same answer to describe the end of his rival's tenure as House Speaker. He called Gingrich a creature of K Street, the corridor of Washington lobbyists, who cuddled on a couch with liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi over cap-and-trade policy and attacked conservative Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan.

While Gingrich roamed K Street, Romney said he "fought" against cap-and-trade, he "fought" for Ryan and he "fought" for GOP values. Get it? He's a fighter.

"Mitt's a lot more Detroit than Harvard tonight," tweeted GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who worked for Romney in the past but is not affiliated with a campaign this cycle.

Humbled and humiliated in South Carolina, Romney used the 18th GOP debate to show voters that he wanted the nomination badly enough to fight for it. That is, after all, what GOP voters want most: A nominee with the guts and talent to stand up to President Obama.

In previous debates, especially the past two in South Carolina, Gingrich reflected the frustration of conservatives voters by lambasting debate moderators, members of the mainstream media so loathed by GOP voters. Romney saved his loathing for Gingrich.

"I didn't have an office on K Street. I wasn't a lobbyist," the former Massachusetts governor said during the NBC News/National Journal/Tampa Bay Times debate. "You have congressmen who say you came in and lobbied them..."

Gingrich replied: "You just jumped a long way over here, friend." The famously explosive former House speaker seethed, pausing for a moment to control his anger before denying the charge. Gingrich apparently decided that he is the front-runner and so could take the high road.

It was unclear whether the Angry Mitt and Confident Mitt acts would change the race's dynamics. If nothing else, Romney showed some life but he failed to provoke Gingrich's fiery temper -- "The Moment" he really needed.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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