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Florida debate: Where's the love? Newt Gingrich hopes audience shows it. (+video)

Newt Gingrich, who is hoping to regain his momentum Thursday night, suggests the silent crowd at the first GOP Florida debate rattled him. Applause is allowed in Jacksonville, CNN says.

By Staff writer / January 26, 2012

GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista wave after a campaign stop at the Cambier Park Bandstand in Naples, Florida on Tuesday. Gingrich, coming off one of his most subdued debate performances of the campaign, signaled on Tuesday he may skip future debates unless his supporters are given full license to clap, cheer and roar. CNN says, applause is allowed at tonight's Florida debate.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

There are two burning questions heading into Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate: Will the audience applaud and otherwise express itself? And can Newt Gingrich regain his momentum against Mitt Romney ahead of Tuesday’s pivotal primary in Florida?

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The two are related. The insurgent Mr. Gingrich, fresh off an upset victory in South Carolina’s primary Jan. 21, insists that he needs audience feedback to perform at his best. That, he says, is why he seemed off his game at Monday’s debate, where moderator Brian Williams of NBC requested a silent crowd. In fact, Gingrich threatened to skip future debates if audience participation was barred. CNN has said it will ask the audience Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., to be “respectful” – meaning, applause is OK.  

It may be a stretch to suggest that Gingrich has faded a bit in Florida polls because he didn’t get raucous audience reactions on Monday night. The former House speaker is also being bombarded with criticism from conservative thought leaders – from Ann Coulter and the Drudge Report to National Review and a growing list of former Republican leaders who worked with Gingrich in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The bottom line is that Gingrich is now trailing Romney in Florida by a solid margin. Two polls out Thursday – Rasmussen and Insider Advantage – show Romney ahead of Gingrich by eight percentage points (39-31 in one, 40-32 in the other). Given Romney’s big advantage in fundraising and organization, a victory in Florida would once again make him the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.

But with five days to go until next Tuesday, there’s plenty of time for Gingrich to rebound. He’s drawing much bigger crowds than Romney in Florida – at times, numbering in the thousands, versus the low 100s for Romney. And he’s unloading on Romney with sharply populist rhetoric, portraying himself as the outsider going up against the establishment.

“You’re watching ads paid for with the money taken from the people of Florida by companies like Goldman Sachs, recycled back into ads trying to stop you from having a choice in this election,” Gingrich said Thursday at a tea party rally in Mount Dora, Fla. “That’s what this is all about.”

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