Tampa debate: Newt Gingrich could face his Freddie Mac moment

The debate Monday night in Florida – the 18th of this cycle – is arguably the most important yet. Newt Gingrich faces fresh scrutiny of his record, and Mitt Romney’s campaign is in crisis.

Matt Rourke/AP
Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at The River Church, Monday, Jan. 23, in Tampa, Fla.

One would think that after 17 GOP presidential debates, everything the remaining candidates have to say has already been said.

Hardly. In fact, debate No. 18 -- Monday at 9 p.m., Eastern time, in Tampa, Fla., airing on NBC – is the most important yet. The campaign of Mitt Romney, coming off a crushing defeat Saturday in the South Carolina primary, is in crisis. Newt Gingrich, the victor in South Carolina by 12 points and now solidly ahead in the latest polls out of Florida, faces fresh scrutiny of his record and temperament.

The other two candidates on stage, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, will also play a role – both in promoting themselves and in softening up the two leaders.

Most under the gun is Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. He has to clean up his message and generate passion, says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. By promising to release his 2010 and 2011 tax returns on Tuesday, Romney at least moves off his defensive posture of the past two debates.

But he has to get back to making a positive case for himself, both in tone and substance. “The best way for Mitt to generate passion is by making a winning argument, something he has not done in five years of campaigning,” says Mr. O’Connell, who advised the McCain campaign in 2008.

“Routinely touting corporate experience and one's understanding of the economy while dispensing hollow phrases like ‘Believe in America’ aren’t going to cut it, and frankly they don't motivate anyone to do anything,” O’Connell says. “He needs to start by changing his message and focus it on bigger ideas like curbing entitlements and dealing with the debt.”

He also has to go after Mr. Gingrich aggressively, analysts say – not only to try to knock the former speaker off his stride, but also to show Republican voters that he would be a tough adversary for President Obama in November.

Already, Romney and his surrogates have been stepping up their attacks over Gingrich’s consulting work for Freddie Mac, which paid him $1.6 million over nine years. They accuse him of influence peddling, and they’re calling on him to release documents that lay out what he did for the government-backed mortgage giant, which played a central role in the subprime mortgage crisis.

Gingrich says he has asked for the documents’ release. Still, he can expect debate questions on Freddie Mac, and he’s likely to strike the defiant pose that has already stood him in good stead.

Assuming documents related to Gingrich’s involvement with Freddie Mac do become public, the question is when (before or after the Florida primary), how extensive they are, and whether there’s anything damaging in them.

Analysts say that Gingrich, in fact, should remain aggressive and defiant against his primary opponents, against Mr. Obama, and against the media – because it has worked.

But at the same time, “he needs to be careful, because it can be too stylized,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He’s been swinging for the fences in just about every answer. At a certain point, he needs to get more modulated and start giving answers that not only the Republican base finds acceptable.”

If Gingrich really seeks to emulate President Reagan, he may need to start channeling Mr. Reagan’s charm and common touch a bit more. So far, Reagan’s trademark sunny optimism has not exactly been Gingrich’s style. And even if his combativeness worked in South Carolina, GOP voters might begin to ask themselves if the broader electorate is willing to vote for that.

Mr. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, effectively tore into both Romney and Gingrich in the last debate. Expect him to do the same this time. He may even strike a more aggressive posture against Gingrich than against Romney this time, as he seeks to replace Gingrich as the anti-Romney.

It remains to be seen if Santorum can hang on until the Florida vote on Jan. 31, after finishing a disappointing third in South Carolina with 17 percent. Florida is an expensive state, with 10 media markets, and Santorum needs a strong debate performance – combined with a Gingrich stumble – to breathe new life into his candidacy and an infusion of cash.

His best hope is that the at-times undisciplined Gingrich does indeed trip up. After all, his campaign has already collapsed twice in this cycle. Santorum wants to be there to pick up the pieces.

Representative Paul of Texas is not really competing in Florida, instead looking ahead to smaller caucus states like Nevada. His ultimate goal appears to be to amass as many delegates as he can so he can have a presence at the Republican convention this summer and influence the party platform.

In Monday’s debate, Paul’s goal is to keep himself part of the conversation and to keep his devoted followers energized for the contests to come. And as always, the libertarian Paul aims to inject his small-government vision and bring-home-the-troops foreign policy into mainstream consciousness.

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