TAMPA, Fla. — The spotlight will be on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Monday night to see if he can steal the momentum back from Newt Gingrich at the 17th GOP primary debate in Tampa sponsored by NBC News, the Tampa Bay Times and the National Journal.
On Saturday Gingrich punctured the narrative that Romney is the GOP’s inevitable nominee with his double-digit win in South Carolina. It was a victory that was anything but assured when the contest kicked into high gear after the New Hampshire primary.
The former House speaker entered the Palmetto State after finishing fourth in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Romney was besting him in the polls by as much as 14-points according to one Rasmussen poll. But Gingrich ultimately surged ahead by proving conventional wisdom wrong — debates, it turns out, do indeed matter.
Gingrich soared in the two South Carolina debates by boldly and confidently answering questions that would have put most candidates on the defensive, such as about his ex-wife’s allegation that he once asked her for an “open marriage.” He received two standing ovations in two debates — two more than any other candidate has received over 16 debates. In contrast, in the second South Carolina debate, Romney turned in his worst debate performance of the election season. Asked about whether he would release all of his tax returns, Romney fumbled so badly he got booed.
If Romney answered the question with the confidence Gingrich usually answers much more difficult questions, perhaps the former Massachusetts governor wouldn’t have lost by so much in South Carolina. He could have boldly defended not releasing his tax returns, turning the question into a disquisition on how the media likes to demonize success (as he tried to do after his “maybe” answer). That’s probably what Gingrich would have done if he had tax returns he didn’t wish to release — even if his response was a non-sequester and didn’t make all that much sense on paper.
Or Romney could have done the opposite and said he will release his full and complete tax returns within the next week. The point is Romney just needed a firm answer to boldly defend. He didn’t have one and thus looked like a weak candidate with something to hide.
As a result of the momentum shift, Gingrich now holds a near-double digit lead over Romney in Florida according to the latest polls released by Rasmussen and Insider Advantage. Yet, Romney still maintains an organizational advantage, which is perhaps more significant in the Sunshine State than it may have been elsewhere.
According to the Miami Herald, the Romney campaign and pro-Romney groups have already spent $7,000,000 on TV ads in the state, many of them attacking Gingrich. Moreover, over 200,000 voters — about 10 percent of the total number of people expected to take place in the Jan. 31 primary — have already voted either through absentee ballots or early voting, most of which before Gingrich experienced his surge. Romney also was more aggressive in courting those voters.