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

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.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
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.

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?

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.

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“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.”

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.

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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