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Why was the Florida GOP debate audience so subdued?

Debate audiences have provided some of the most memorable moments of the campaign so far. But the Florida GOP debate crowd produced only occasional polite applause.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
The audience listens to the presidential candidates during the Florida GOP debate in Tampa, Fla., Monday.

What happened? Anyone tuning in to Monday night’s GOP presidential debate hoping for a raucous smackdown with lusty cheers and jeers from the audience would have been sorely disappointed.

Apparently the crowd in Tampa, Fla., just wasn’t that into it. Or so it seemed, judging by the deafening silence, punctuated by occasional polite applause.

Moderator Brian Williams of NBC is only partly to blame. He noted at the outset that the invited guests had been asked to “withhold their applause” and “any verbal reactions to what they hear onstage.” But such guidance hasn’t stopped the audience before, NBC’s Chuck Todd noted Tuesday morning.

The debate audiences, in fact, have provided some of the most memorable moments of the campaign so far. Who, after all, can forget the audience that booed the gay soldier? Or cheered on Newt Gingrich when he went after Juan Williams of Fox News for suggesting that calling Barack Obama the “food stamp president” is racist? Or shouted “yes!” when Ron Paul was asked if people without health insurance should be allowed to die?

Typically, debate audiences are populated by supporters of the candidates, plus invitees of the host institution, in this case the University of South Florida. Among the attendees Monday were the British and French ambassadors to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott and François Delattre. Perhaps, as well-behaved diplomats, they set the tone. Or maybe after 17 debates, everybody’s getting a little weary of all the arguing.

Monday night, in reports from the postdebate spin room, Mr. Gingrich’s team complained about the muzzled audience, when asked why the former House speaker seemed off his game. Team Romney took the opposite view, applauding the lack of applause as a dignified display worthy of such a lofty enterprise.

Here’s our take: When they’re going to hold a debate that goes way past our bedtime, we need a little something to keep our eyes open – especially when the talk turns to sugar subsidies and Sarbanes-Oxley. Skip the soporific routine, and put a little juice back in the game.

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