Romney, Gingrich Play to Their Worst Stereotypes

Romney will say anything to get elected and Gingrich will attack anybody to get elected.

florida debate romney gingrich full.jpg

You know it's an ugly, brutish debate when Newt Gingrich of all people turns to his rival and says, "You have to be realistic in your indignation."

Realistic? This from the Great Polarizer of the 1990s who rose to the ranks of House speaker with a militant zeal for defining Democrats as evil and moderate Republicans as fools; the insurgent GOP candidate who denounced President Obama as "the most effective food-stamp president in American history" who wants to transform America into "a brand-new secular Europe-style bureaucratic socialist system;" the resident of tony McLean, Va., who insisted that "elites... have been trying for a half-century to force us to quit being Americans."

Realistic? How about this for realism: In what's become a cliche of the GOP presidential cycle, Thursday night's debate, the 19th of the season and the last, thankfully, for nearly a month, was a victory for Obama. Two days after he delivered a populist State of the Union address squarely aimed at independent voters, and one day after a poll showed Obama's approval ratings rising into safe re-election territory, Romney and Gingrich played to their worst stereotypes:

Romney will say anything to get elected and Gingrich will attack anybody to get elected.

In the short run, Romney more than Gingrich fulfilled his debate strategy by showing fight -- something GOP voters want to see in Obama's rival. "When I'm shot at, I return fire," Romney told CNN after the debate. "I'm no shrinking violet." In the long run, the Republican Party, as represented by the two frontrunners, didn't look very presidential.

"Let's focus on the issues!" former Sen. Rick Santorum said after Romney called Gingrich an influence-peddler and Gingrich questioned the source of Romney's wealth.

"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies? That's not the worst thing in the world," Santorum said. "And Mitt Romney is a wealth guy because ... he goes out and works hard."

The Jacksonville, Fla., debate took place five days before the Florida primary, a must-win contest for both Romney and Gingrich.

A loss for Romney in Florida after his stunning defeat in South Carolina would destroy the aura of inevitability that has sustained his candidacy. Romney's campaign could well collapse amid its own weight, as panicky GOP leaders question their faith in the former Massachusetts governor. You can almost hear the panic in their voices: If he can't beat Gingrich and all his baggage, Obama is going to stomp him. Talk of a late-entry candidate or brokered convention might get serious.

A loss for Gingrich in Florida would undercut his two strengths. The first is his argument that Romney is not conservative enough for typical GOP voters. He can't say that if Romney wins the Florida primary, which is open only to registered GOP voters.

Gingrich's second strength is his unquestionable prowess in debates. Nearly each of the 18 debates thus far has changed the course of the race at least slightly and, collectively, the forums have shaped the campaign more than any force outside the candidates' control.

The debate was the last debate until Feb. 22, nearly a month from now, which leaves Gingrich with one less tool in his toolbox to counter Romney's financial and organizational advantages.

That explains why Gingrich reverted Thursday to his back-bench brand of firebrand that helped Republicans seize control of the House in 1994 after decades of Democratic control.

The debate started with a question about immigration and Romney's unproven claim that illegal immigrants would opt for "self-deportation" under the right circumstances.

Gingrich said that might work for many illegal immigrants, but not for those in the United States for years and with families. "I would just suggest that grandmothers and grandfathers aren't likely to self-deport," Gingrich said.

It was striking to hear Gingrich, the champion of unbending rhetoric, chastise a fellow Republican for a lack of subtlety. "I think you have to be realistic in your indignation," he told Romney.

Climbing on is own high horse, the former Massachusetts governor said it was "repulsive" that Gingrich would suggest that he's anti-immigrant. He called Gingrich's remarks "simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long" and he accused the former House Speaker of deploying "highly charged epithets"

In the same exchange, Gingrich criticized Romney for airing a radio ad that accused him of calling Spanish "the language of the ghetto," a phrase the former House speaker did not disown but said was taken out of context.

Remarkably, Romney said he didn't know anything about the ad. "Did you say what the ad says or not?" he asked Gingrich.

"It was taken out of context," Gingrich replied.

"OK," Romney said. "You said it."

Nice shot -- exactly the kind of moment Romney needed to win the debate, and maybe Florida. One problem: Turns out it was indeed a Romney ad.

Inauthentic Mitt. Angry Newt. Both men are qualified to be president and, if nominated, could defeat Obama. The question is whether they can survive much more time together.

Image credit: Reuters

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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