By failing to shine on the Tampa debate stage Monday, a subdued Newt Gingrich undermined the central appeal of his candidacy.
A central tenet of the Newt Gingrich mythology is the idea that he would humiliate President Obama if given a chance to debate him. Wipe the floor with him. Beat him senseless. But in Monday night's debate, a subdued, decidedly unfeisty Gingrich got batted around like a cat toy by a relentless Mitt Romney.
For a candidate whose electability pitch -- and appeal to primary voters -- rests on his ability to thrill, entertain, provoke, and delight, that's a problem.
Romney's very first answer encompassed Gingrich being forced "to resign in disgrace" as House speaker, "working as an influence peddler in Washington," "sitting on a sofa with Nancy Pelosi," and badmouthing Paul Ryan's budget plan. Newt's response: "I just think this is the worst kind of trivial politics."
The man who, in Whitmanesque fashion, embraced his own "grandiosity" in the previous debate suddenly seemed small and plaintive. He tried to lecture Romney -- "he may have been a great financier, he's a terrible historian" -- but Romney wasn't finished.
Gingrich had finally released his company's consulting contract with Freddie Mac shortly before the debate, giving new life to the topic that is probably the most damaging mark on his record with Republican voters. "They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians," Romney said of Gingrich's laughable earlier claim that his usefulness to the government-supported mortgage company was as an academic rather than a lobbyist.
The lengthy, bickering back and forth that ensued was damaging to Gingrich in several respects. First, he demonstrated a surprising lack of fight in the face of Romney's pummeling. Second, he allowed himself to be portrayed as a Washington insider. ("I didn't have an office on K Street," Romney said.) Third, he got cornered into defending both Freddie and Medicare Part D, two programs not particularly loved by the right. And fourth, he made Romney look good, a cardinal sin for the anti-Rommey conservatives Gingrich is trying to woo. (Meanwhile, Romney -- at long last -- came up with a decent line when asked about his taxes: "The real question is not so much my taxes but the taxes of the American people." He's scheduled to release his tax return Tuesday morning.)
Gingrich's sudden surge to the front of the pack (again) is fragile because it is so dependent on his continued ability to generate moments of television magic (Pious baloney! Food stamps! Despicable news media!). If he can't do that consistently, he doesn't have much else to offer.
The crowd in the hall in Tampa for Monday's debate, sponsored by NBC News, National Journal, and the Tampa Bay Times, was instructed to keep quiet, a commendable request given the zoolike atmosphere recent debates have taken on, but one that sucked the energy out of the room. Aside from the early exchange between the frontrunners, there weren't a lot of fireworks -- though questions about Cuba, sugar subsidies, Terri Schiavo, the Everglades, and the space program reminded us all to be grateful for the existence of Florida.
Rick Santorum's strongest moment came late in the debate, when he made a strong case for the idea that neither Romney nor Gingrich could claim to have fought the conservative fight in the trenches. "When push came to shove, they got pushed," he said. "They rejected conservatism when it was hard."
Ron Paul had an interesting turn on yet another iteration of the foreign-policy question he keeps getting asked, which is always some variation on, "You really wouldn't start a war? Really? Even if there was a country you really didn't like and you were really mad at it? You catching this, Republican voters?" This time around, Paul said, "I don't like the isolationism of not talking to people" -- a deft turnaround on the "isolationism" he's always accused of.
Paul also got in an effective jab at Gingrich's claim that he left the speakership voluntarily because he felt responsible for not doing better in the 1998 midterm elections. "He didn't not run for speaker," Paul, who was there, noted. "He didn't have the votes."
It wasn't a catastrophic night for Gingrich by any means, nor was it an unalloyed Romney triumph. But it surely put a crimp in Gingrich's momentum, showed him to be less than invincible on the debate stage, and brought to the fore once again the issue -- Freddie Mac -- that will continue to dog him.
Image credit: Scott Audette / Reuters
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.