Last night’s presidential candidate debate in Jacksonville, cosponsored by CNN and the Hispanic Leadership Network, was Newt Gingrich’s best and perhaps last chance to get his mojo back against a confluence of negative pressures–from sustained attacks to his left and right by GOP opinion-leaders to a cascade of Romney-sponsored attack ads–that were undermining his support in Florida.
By virtually everyone’s account, he just plain blew it.
Earlier in the day, shortly after his old rival Bob Dole went completely medieval on him, Gingrich had delivered a podium-pounding speech in Florida that accused Romney of conspiring with Establishment figures to take him out as a threat to their power. He must have burned himself out, because that fiery Newt Gingrich was not apparent during the debate. He sounded bad, he looked bad, and generally came across like a weasel who had finally been cornered by Animal Control.
For very, very long minutes, Romney beat him up on the immigration issue, managing simultaenously to appeal to nativists and to suck up to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who had already done him the enormous favor of criticizing Gingrich’s ads accusing Mitt of being “anti-immigrant.”
Here’s how Ron Brownstein put it:
By luck of the draw, the debate’s first two questions allowed Romney to conspicuously position himself to Gingrich’s right-and in so doing may have sealed Romney’s advantage in the state. Gingrich’s resurgence in South Carolina was fueled by the Republican coalition’s most populist and conservative elements. But in the debate’s first half-hour, it was Romney who identified both with conservative and populist causes through an extended discussion about illegal immigration and then housing (which again allowed him to criticize Gingrich for his work for Freddie Mac). That placed Romney on a high ground from which Gingrich never dislodged him; in fact, Gingrich seemed to lose heart for the fight as the evening progressed, leaving Santorum to deliver the most effective conservative case against Romney.
If losing virtually every direct exchange with Romney was the bad news for Newt, the worse news is that the debate may have added a few points, and some hope, to Rick Santorum’s campaign. At this point, nearly every vote Santorum wins in Florida diminishes Gingrich’s chances. And those chances were already beginning to fade, as all of the most recent Florida polls have shown Romney retaking the lead.
At this point, Gingrich needs to work some magic with the $6 million Florida ad campaign the Adelson family bought for him, and hope for big errors by Romney. The road gets a lot easier for Mitt, and harder for Newt, after Tuesday. Not for the first time in his long, strange career, Gingrich was at his worst when he looked to have done his best. A third resurrection of his campaign in this cycle is not impossible, but if it happens yet again, I’d recommend we all start looking for signs of the End Times.