JACKSONVILLE, FL - Here we go again. Tonight's high-stakes debate here at the University of North Florida very well could swing Tuesday's primary election. At the moment, it's a two-man race: Mitt Romney vs. Newt Gingrich, but there will be four contenders on stage:
Romney - Even though he's vaulted back ahead in state polls, a member of Team Romney tells me they are taking absolutely nothing for granted. They saw a large lead evaporate almost overnight in South Carolina, largely because of debates, and they're acutely aware of how pivotal the next few hours will be; Romney seized the offensive and got the better of Gingrich in an exchange on influence peddling on Monday night, so even though a "tie" might be sufficient to maintain his lead, expect for Romney to remain aggressive. A "prevent defense" strategy fails football and politics. The Romney camp has a new ad on the air down here, hitting Newt over some supposed "secret" information Nancy Pelosi claims to have about decades-old ethics charges against then-Speaker Gingrich:
The first 10 seconds of this spot are completely fair game, but I think Romney on shaky ground when he cites Nancy Pelosi's cryptic insinuations as a cause for legitimate concern. Republican voters have, well, every reason in the world to distrust Pelosi, so I'm not sure how effective this approach will be. On the whole, the ethics baggage is definitely a vulnerabliity for Newt, but as Greg mentioned earlier, quite a lot of it was trumped up and dismissed at the time. This issue could provide an opening for Newt to work himself up into high dudgeon -- a tact that has worked well for him with primary voters. In seeking to deliver a knock-out blow against his top opponent, Romney should handle this particular attack very carefully. Another potential danger zone for Mitt? His taxes. Again. Today we learned he failed to disclose a Swiss bank account in his recent document dump. His campaign caught it and is amending the paperwork, but it'll offer some easy fodder for opponents looking to draw blood.
Gingrich - When he's behind, Newt can be volatile, angry, and sometimes quite effective. Which version of the candidate will show up tonight? One of his most-discussed moments of any debate was his furious denunciation of John King for exploring "false" charges from his ex-wife. While that was a memorable discussion, it now seems as though one of the primary defenses he offered up against the accusations -- namely, that he could provide friends who would corroborate his side of the story -- wasn't exactly true:
After nearly a week on the defensive, CNN's John King reports tonight that Newt Gingrich's claim about offering witnesses to ABC News in his defense — to rebut the network's interview with his second wife, Marianne Gingrich — was not true. "Tonight, after persistent questioning by our staff, the Gingrich campaign concedes now Speaker Gingrich was wrong — both in his debate answer, and in our interview yesterday," King said on tonight's edition of John King USA. "Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond says the only people the Gingrich campaign offered to ABC were his two daughters from his first marriage."
This is an embarrassing misstep for Team Newt, but do any of his rivals have the you-know-whats to raise it? Might CNN confront him again? (What could go wrong?) In addition to the ethics dust-up, there have been punches and counter-punches flying about Newt's claims to the Reagan mantle. A pro-Romney SuperPAC is running an ad calling Newt's story into question, so I'd imagine there's a high probability the issue will spill over into tonight's forum.
Santorum - He's stagnant in the polls, and really needs a breakthrough to breathe life back into his campaign. His people have vehemently denied rumors that the former Senator is considering pulling out of Florida early -- so a sharp, determined performance tonight could put that speculation to rest. Santorum fired a major salvo ("crass politics") at Newt's moon colony brainstorm earlier today, so we might see a face-to-face confrontation over the issue this evening. If it materializes, it'll feature Newt's lofty appeals to American exceptionalism and frontiersmanship versus Santorum's sober assessment of the nation's grave fiscal state. That could make for fascinating viewing.
Paul - He's already 0-for-3 in primaries, and a last place Sunshine State finish wouldn't help matters. But then again, Paul isn't going to win the Republican nomination -- he's in it for a cause at this point. He'll do his thing: Offering a wrong-headed, dissenting voice on national security and foreign policy, while serving as the party's conscience on spending, federalism, and the size of government. Question: Will he ever attack Mitt Romney, or will the Texas Congressman continue to reserve his (occasionally cutting) barbs for everyone else?
Bottom Line - After Monday's relatively docile affair, during which audience members were admonished not to react aloud to the unfolding verbal fisticuffs, tonight will have a very different feel. I'm told CNN will not warn against audience participation. Newt will have a chip on his shoulder, and he probably knows this is his last gasp to significantly move the Florida needle in his direction. This is the 25th debate or forum among these candidates, so policy differences are well established at this point. Therefore, expect a personal, political slugfest. We'll be back after the dust settles to assess winners and losers, so stay tuned.