The 19th debate in this GOP primary season was held in Florida. This is the last one before Tuesday's primary. From this point on, the pace of primaries and caucuses increases, but the pace of debates slows almost to a halt.
Over the course of the past five days, some of the air appears to have come out of Newt Gingrich's South Carolina balloon. As of this writing (about 8:15 Thursday night) the Real Clear Politics averages for Florida polling were:
Romney - 37.4%
Gingrich - 32.4%
Santorum - 10.4%
Paul - 8.2%
Rick Santorum has lost touch with the leaders. When there are only four left, there is no second tier. If you're not cheek-by-jowl with the frontrunners you're out. Santorum may stay in until February 4 (the date of the Nevada caucuses) but his campaign is essentially over.
Ron Paul will hang around forever. As we've discussed before, he has an intensely loyal following which CNN discovered when they allowed the pro-Paul students too close to their broadcast position and were all but drowned out by the chanting. His standing below Santorum tells me that in primary states he is not a factor, all though he will do better.
Much was made over Gingrich's lackluster performance in Monday debate as causing his reversal of fortune. I'm not so sure (a) there is any reversal of fortune, nor (b) his Monday debate had that much impact.
It is more likely that the snap polls following his significant win in South Carolina last Saturday skewed the results and these numbers are probably more reflective of the current state of play - keeping in mind there are five days to go before Floridians vote.
One of Gingrich's problems is the press corps is looking for him to duplicate the two astonishing performances he gave in South Carolina. He didn't on Monday and he didn't appear to be able to recapture the South Carolina lightening last night.
Romney didn't know about an ad his campaign is running (which requires a disclaimed from the candidate saying "I approved this message"). It had to do with claiming Gingrich called Spanish the "language of the ghetto.
The CNN production crew determined it was a radio ad paid for by his campaign. If you're the candidate you have a responsibility to know what's in your ads.
Romney, in the discussion about his taxes, finally got the message about his wealth right saying that he was proud of his success and we should stop trying to make success a negative.
He has a better answer to the health care system in Massachusetts, although Rick Santorum said he was wrong about that answer.
Gingrich charge that Romney owned stock in Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, thus making money from those two tarnished organizations.
Romney responded that for the past ten years his investments have been made by a trustee administering a blind trust. He then went on to say he didn't own stock in those companies; his trust owned Fanny and Freddie bonds, meaning he loaned money to them.
At 8:41 Gingrich gently slapped down Wolf Blitzer for asking him if he was satisfied with Romney's tax disclosures. Romney didn't play along and he used the opportunity to explaining having money in a Swiss bank by going back to the blind trust answer.
It appeared to me that Gingrich sensed he was not having the impact on the debate he wanted in spite of having audience participation.
I'm beginning to wonder whether the pace and work load of this campaign is beginning to tell on him.
Santorum is a good - very good - debater. He was the first to call for an end to personal attribute questions and was careful and focused in his answers. He was thoughtful on immigration, on NASA, and on every other subject he address until he took on Romney and Gingrich on individual mandates and was pretty convincing.
Problem was, when he recognized he was pretty convincing he kept pressing until he pressed too hard and he ran out of gas.
His answer on religion in politics was, perhaps, the best answer by anyone to any question.
It is probably too little too late, but I hope he is invited as a guest debater whether he's in the race or not.
Ron Paul was on his game. He was funny. He wasn't the Curmudgeon-in-Chief. He didn't say anything that made me cringe and, indeed, in the discussion about the budget made a telling point that while Gingrich claims to have overseen four balanced budgets while he was Speaker "the deficit went up by a trillion dollars because he (and Reagan) used Social Security to make the numbers work.