A week ago tonight, Newt Gingrich slapped down CNN's John King, who cowered when asking the former House speaker about his ex-wife's claim that he had requested an "open marriage." But tonight, Gingrich experienced the John King-moment in reverse as moderator Wolf Blitzer refused to back down when Gingrich tried to weasel out of talking about Mitt Romney's tax returns and offshore investments, reminding the former House Speaker that it was he himself who raised the issue by making the comments. And just as last week's debate solidified Gingrich's South Carolina surge, tonight's event solidified his Florida fizzle.
Though that Blitzer exchange may have been the starkest example of how Gingrich flopped tonight, it wasn't the only bad moment for him. He came under heavy attack from a much more aggressive and effective Romney, who dominated Gingrich from the very first question on immigration. Typically, a Republican candidate faces the following problem on the immigration issue: satisfying conservative immigration hawks makes you get attacked for being too extreme, while going soft makes conservative suspicious. When Gingrich stood by his criticism of Romney being "anti-immigrant," it gave Romney an opening to thread the needle. On the one hand, he criticized Gingrich for using inflammatory and overheated rhetoric -- making him seem like the more moderate and reasonable one. Then he went on to argue that there's nothing anti-immigrant about being against illegal immigration -- which put him on the side of the conservative base.
Romney was also clearly prepared for Gingrich to ask him about his investments in Freddie Mac, explaining that they were made as part of a blind trust that he has no control over, and countering that Gingrich himself had investments in Freddie Mac.
At another point, Gingrich showed his "zany" side when he provided a detailed defense of why he supports building a lunar colony and granting it a path to statehood once 13,000 people move there. Romney joked that if anybody in business ever proposed such an idea, he'd fire them.
If it were for these moments alone, Romney would have been the clear winner of the debate. But there were at least two problematic moments for him. The first came when he claimed to have never seen an anti-Gingrich attack ad that actually ends with him approving the message. And the second, much more significant moment, was when Rick Santorum scorched him on his health care record.
Santorum didn't just offer a grazing attack of Romneycare like many other candidates have in prior debates. He got very specific. He noted that it was top-down government control -- from the mandate forcing individuals to purchase health insurance to the expansion of Medicaid. And when Romney tried to wiggle away, and defended the individual mandate making the same arguments as President Obama, Santorum pinned him down, explaining all the problems with the health care system in Massachusetts under the law. Romney's response to Santorum's passionate case against government-run health care was to say, “It’s not worth getting angry about,” which was a dagger in the back of conservatives who have spent the last several years fighting a government takeover of the largest (and most personal) sector of the U.S. economy. It was a clear reminder to conservatives of why they've been so reluctant to get behind Romney to the point that they'd be considering the deeply flawed Gingrich.
Besides sticking it to Romney, Santorum had strong answers on almost every question -- on Latin America, on not throwing away too much money on the space program, and on why rights are God-given rather than granted by government.
Ron Paul had a better than usual debate because there were less questions on foreign policy, which allowed him to focus on domestic issues where he can appeal to a broader cross-section of the GOP electorate. He also had some good lighter moments, like joking during the lunar colony exchange that he'd like to send politicians to the moon.
So overall, Santorum won the debate if we're looking at it in a vacuum. But if we're looking at it from the perspective of what happens in Florida Tuesday, I think Romney staved off the possibility of a late Gingrich surge there, and will likely win the state.