Gingrich blows chance in crucial final debate

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Early Thursday morning -- about 12 hours before the final debate of the Florida primary -- Newt Gingrich was filled with indignation about Mitt Romney's investments.  In the most recent debate, in Tampa, Romney had hit Gingrich hard over Gingrich's consulting deal with Freddie Mac.  But in the intervening days, Gingrich had learned that not only did Romney have campaign surrogates who actually lobbied for Freddie and Fannie -- he also had personal investments in the two mortgage giants.

So Gingrich got ready to attack.  "Here's a guy a who owns Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae stock," he told a Tea Party crowd in the picturesque lakeside town of Mount Dora.  "He owns a Goldman Sachs subsidiary that forecloses on Floridians. He is surrounded by lobbyists who are paid by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to stop reform. And on that front, he decides to lie about my career? There's something about the hypocrisy that should make every American angry."

Gingrich stayed on the attack Thursday night in the debate at the University of North Florida here in Jacksonville.  "We began digging after [the last debate] because, frankly, I'd had about enough of this," Gingrich said.  "We discovered, to our shock, Gov. Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."

For a moment, it appeared to be a big Gingrich score.  Romney weakly explained that his investments were made through a blind trust, and that it was all very complicated.  But then Romney looked at Gingrich and said: "Have you checked your own investments?  You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."

It was a major gotcha moment, one for which Gingrich appeared completely unprepared.  He feebly responded that to "compare my investments with [Romney's] is like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant," but the bottom line was clear: Gingrich had hit Romney, and Romney turned around and hit Gingrich much, much harder.

How could Gingrich have made such a mistake?  How could he loudly accuse Romney of something and not know he had done the same thing?  And even then, how did Gingrich not know that he could have framed the situation to his own advantage?  After all, he is the one who defended working for Freddie Mac, who defended GSEs in general, who said his relationship with the mortgage firm was all entirely proper.  Of course he would not have had a problem defending ownership of stock (through mutual funds) in Freddie and Fannie.  Gingrich still could have attacked Romney for hypocrisy, given Romney's past statements. Instead, Gingrich set himself up for a fall, and Romney was happy to accommodate.

After the debate, Gingrich's spokesman did not want to answer a simple question: How could Gingrich have attacked Romney for a Fannie/Freddie investment when the former speaker had such investments of his own?  "How could Mitt Romney not reveal that his advisers, including [Susan] Molinari, including Charlie Black, including Vin Weber -- all who were lobbyists on behalf of Freddie?" spokesman R.C. Hammond asked in response.  Hammond explained that Gingrich's Fannie/Freddie holdings, in mutual funds that have hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse investments, were "in a retirement IRA, which was held in this country, not in Switzerland, and how could the Romney campaign not admit that their guys were actually lobbyists for Fannie and Freddie?"

Further pursuit yielded no more answers -- at one point, Hammond tried to change the subject by abruptly declaring, "Let's talk about voting in Massachusetts in 1992."  Team Gingrich simply did not want to talk about such a glaring error.

Across the room from Hammond, top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom explained how the smackdown came to be.  The Romney campaign sent out an e-mail with a detailed list of Gingrich's investments almost as soon as Romney delivered the punch, and Fehrnstrom explained that Romney's staff became curious about Gingrich's investments after Gingrich started talking about Romney's. "We began looking into it as soon as [Gingrich] started with his criticism of that particular investment," Fehrnstrom said.  "And they weren't hard to find."  The information was easily available in Gingrich's financial disclosure forms.

Romney's Fannie/Freddie performance, combined with his nimble outmaneuvering of Gingrich on immigration, seemingly set the former Massachusetts governor on the path to winning the debate.  Importantly, Romney was also smart enough to drop his own unfounded attacks on Gingrich.  For example, Romney said nothing about Gingrich's ethics case from the 1990s, a subject about which Romney had hit Gingrich hard in earlier ads and debates.  It's not clear whether Romney was aware of new reporting showing that the Internal Revenue Service completely exonerated Gingrich in that case, but in any event Romney did not mention it.

Romney also backed off his ill-considered earlier attempts to suggest Gingrich had not played a significant role in some of the Reagan administration's achievements in the 1980s.  Romney's attacks lost all steam after Gingrich produced a video clip from 1995 in which former First Lady Nancy Reagan said her husband had passed the torch of conservative leadership to Gingrich.  Romney's criticism had simply opened himself up to Gingrich's reminding viewers that Romney disavowed Reagan during Romney's run for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994.  It was a loser issue for Romney, and he let it go.

All in all, Thursday was simply a bad night for Gingrich.  Yes, he had some good moments, but after a lackluster performance in last Monday's debate, and with his poll numbers slipping a bit in Florida, Gingrich needed a strong performance, and he didn't get it.  Failing to deliver made Gingrich's job between now and next Tuesday's primary all the harder.

After beating Gingrich, Romney seemed ready to coast to debate victory until a few minutes later, when Rick Santorum took him on over the issue of the individual mandate in Romneycare.  Briefly put, Santorum ran all over Romney, leaving a frustrated Romney sputtering, "First of all, it's not worth getting angry about."  The problem is, a lot of Americans are quite angry about Obamacare, and it seems likely they were not satisfied by Romney's assuring them that it's nothing to get upset about.

The moment gave Santorum, whose campaign appears to be flagging in Florida, a much-needed boost.  Still, Santorum plans to leave the state to return home for a day on Saturday, spurring speculation that he is either changing direction in his campaign or getting out of the race altogether.  As for rumors of Santorum's withdrawal, one supporter who spent a good deal of time with him Thursday said flatly, "That ain't gonna happen.  Ain't gonna happen."

Even after the Santorum score, it's probably safe to say that Romney won the Jacksonville debate.  With the race tight, Gingrich badly needed a good showing.  And with so much on the line, he failed to deliver.



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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner