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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.

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The reference to Goldman Sachs relates to Romney’s newly revealed tax returns, which show holdings in a Goldman fund. In addition, Goldman Sachs has been linked to faulty foreclosure practices – a toxic issue in Florida, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. Gingrich has faced a barrage of negative ads here focused on his nine years of consulting work for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

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In the debate Thursday night, each candidate has something to prove, analysts say. For Gingrich, one goal is not to let Romney dominate him the way he did on Monday night. Romney came loaded for bear, pummeling Gingrich on his record as a consultant – or “lobbyist” or “influence-peddler,” as Romney repeated over and over – and his time as speaker of the House. 

Romney’s release of two years’ of tax returns the morning after the last debate gives Gingrich plenty of ammunition with which to fight back. Not only can he go after the specifics of Romney’s  investments, the off-shore location of some accounts, and his low effective tax rate, but also the sheer magnitude of his overall assets. Gingrich isn’t a pauper, but he’s not mega-wealthy like Romney – and with Gingrich adopting the stance of a populist, he’s likely to try to frame Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy.

In addition, “it’s important for Gingrich to emphasize his electability; that’s his weak suit,” says Richard Foglesong, a political scientist at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. “People didn’t think Ronald Reagan was electable, so he should keep up those comparisons.”

Romney needs to keep doing what he did in the last debate – attack, says Mr. Foglesong. “He didn’t seem comfortable doing it, but he needs to keep challenging Gingrich’s new self-created image as an outsider by hitting on Freddie Mac and the ethics issues that arose during his speakership,” he says.

The other two candidates on the race, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, are likely to be afterthoughts on the debate stage. Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, is working the social conservative angle hard here in Florida. On Monday, for example, Santorum is appearing at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla. Santorum’s continued presence in the race helps split conservative opposition to Romney, and Florida might be his last hurrah as funds are running short, unless he can perform well beyond expectations on Tuesday and bring in a fresh influx of cash.  

Congressman Paul of Texas is not really competing in the Florida primary, since the state’s convention delegates are assigned winner-take-all, and Paul is polling only at about 9 percent. But he will be on the debate stage in Jacksonville. 

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