One word describes Mitt Romney’s debate performance Thursday night: aggressive.
Romney spent much of the second Florida GOP primary debate trying to regain momentum by playing offense against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the one person who threatens his inevitability as his party’s nominee.
Romney called Gingrich out for labeling him “anti-immigrant” in a recent ad. “I think you should apologize for it,” he jabbed, “and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.”
He continued to slam the former speaker for his work with Freddie Mac. “Speaker Gingrich was hired by Freddie Mac to promote them, to influence other people throughout Washington, encouraging them not to dismantle these two entities,” he charged. “I think that was an enormous mistake. I think, instead, we should have had a whistle-blower and not horn-tooter.”
And he made fun of Gingrich’s desire for an American colony on the moon.
“I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.,’” he quipped.
Gingrich, on the other hand, looked weak as he found himself playing defense most of the night on the heels of a post-surge slide in the Florida polls.
“How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening to actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?” Gingrich asked CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer at one point, when Blitzer asked him to elaborate on his criticism of Romney’s recently released tax returns and his various investments and bank accounts. Full elections coverage)
Romney, though, was not about to let his rival claim any moral high ground. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he asked, “if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”
That in turn appeared to backfire when Gingrich got fired up. “Given that standard, Mitt … I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account,” he said. “I’d be glad for you to explain that sort of thing.”
With all the attention on Romney and Newt, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was largely overlooked coming into Thursday night. But he left sounding like the adult in the room, chiding the two front-runners for bringing their shoving match to the stage.
Asserting himself, he told his rivals to leave their personal feuding “alone and focus on the issues.”
In one of the most memorable moments of the debate, Santorum took the fight directly to Romney and criticized the health care takover he authored in Massachusetts.
“Governor Romney was the author of Romneycare, which is a top-down government-run health care system, which — I read an article today — has 15 different items directly in common with Obamacare,” he said.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul didn’t appear to gain any momentum from the debate, reinforcing the idea that his level of support has a natural ceiling. But he did deliver several memorable lines.
“I don’t think we should go to the moon,” Paul said during a discussion about space exploration. “I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.”
And asked about his health, the 76-year-old said, “I’m willing to challenge any of these gentlemen up here to a 25-mile bike ride any time of the day in the heat of Texas.”