Jacksonville, Fla. — Later today, the four remaining Republican presidential contenders will square off here, at the University of North Florida, for the final debate before Tuesday’s primary. With 50 delegates on the line, it will surely be a testy, no-holds-barred evening.
Beyond the usual policy exchanges, keep an eye on these five factors. All of them have been points of contention on the trail, and if fumbled, they could tip the scales in an increasingly close contest.
Senator Rubio, a freshman and tea-party favorite, is this week’s political beach ball, and his name has been repeatedly invoked by the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
#ad#Rubio, attempting to stay above the fray, has not endorsed a candidate, but at key moments he has thrown cold water on certain assertions, such as the claim in Gingrich’s latest radio ad that Romney is “anti-immigrant.” Speaking with the Miami Herald, Rubio scolded Gingrich for airing “inflammatory” spots in Spanish-language markets, calling it “more than just unfortunate.”
Still, as Gingrich’s advisers see it, the Rubio factor, in spite of the senator’s criticisms, could end up being their greatest asset in the final sprint. Rubio’s decision to sit on the sidelines, one Gingrich source tells me, is a silent coup for the former speaker and a blow to Romney, enabling the Georgian to cast himself as an anti-establishment, tea-party leader.
On Tuesday, for example, at a diner stop, Gingrich touted his state director, Jose Mallea, a former Rubio strategist, and called Romney the “Charlie Crist” of this year’s primary, an allusion to the moderate former GOP governor whom Rubio beat in Florida’s 2010 Senate race.
Gingrich also criticized Romney for hiring many of the consultants who worked on Crist’s campaign, a clear play for disgruntled conservatives who remain upset with Crist for departing the GOP during the course of the primary and then challenging Rubio as an independent.
Rubio, however, quickly rebuffed Gingrich’s “Romney as Crist” tack. “Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist. Romney is a conservative,” Rubio said in a statement. “[Romney] was one of the first national Republican leaders to endorse me,” and “he made a real difference in my race.”
According to campaign sources, look for Romney to cite Rubio’s pushbacks, and for Gingrich to hammer Romney’s record as an example of watered-down, Crist-like conservatism. Both candidates, of course, are wary of irking the unaligned Rubio, so the barbs may be limited, but Gingrich aides, especially, sense this line of attack as a potent one, and hope to exploit it.
The Gipper, as ever, has featured prominently in the GOP debates this season, but tonight, the late president will probably receive more than a cursory mention. Gingrich and Romney have been sparring over Gingrich’s connection to Reagan, and over whether Gingrich was a Reagan ally in the House.
In a new ad, Restoring Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, mocks Gingrich for talking up his Reaganite credentials. “From debates you’d think Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan’s vice president,” the narrator intones. “Gingrich exaggerates, dropping Reagan’s name 50 times. But in his diaries, Ronald Reagan mentions Newt Gingrich only once. . . . Reagan rejected Newt’s ideas.”
#ad#Gingrich advisers predict that the sparks will fly if the question comes up, and hint that the former speaker is more than prepared to detail how Romney’s past positions are hardly a testament to Reagan’s principles. Romney’s comment during a 1994 Senate debate that he was an “independent during the time of Reagan-Bush” will be in Gingrich’s rhetorical holster.
Romney surrogates tell me that their candidate will need to be careful in how he phrases his comments on Reagan and Gingrich; he must remain cognizant of the former speaker’s deep reservoir of anecdotes and historical references, and of the potential for Gingrich to snap back with a scathing retort. With that in mind, they expect Romney to use a strategy similar to his approach in Monday’s debate, where Romney, tersely and in the manner of a prosecutor, badgered Gingrich on lobbying.
At the eleventh hour of Florida’s primary, Romney’s supporters sense that their candidate must go after Gingrich’s broader campaign themes, not only details of his past. Tonight, look for Romney to mention more than Reagan’s diary, and to come armed with details of Gingrich’s less-than-friendly quotes about Reagan, most from Gingrich’s early days in Congress, including Gingrich’s 1986 potshot, when he said Reagan was “failing” to meet the Soviet threat.
If Romney finds a way to instill doubt in viewers’ minds about Gingrich’s lofty Reagan recolllections, his campaign believes that Gingrich could be crippled. As Nate Silver of the New York Times has noted, over the course of 17 debates this cycle, Gingrich has cited Reagan 55 times, while the rest of the field, combined, has mentioned Reagan 51 times. Romney, as one source puts it, “doesn’t need to out-Reagan him; he simply can describe the actual relationship.”
On Monday night in Tampa, at the NBC News debate, Gingrich’s performance was more subdued, even passive. The rousing, finger-pointing responses were mostly absent. For the most part, the reason for the sapped energy was the rules. NBC’s production team asked the audience to not cheer or jeer, and the lack of audience participation clipped Gingrich’s oratorical wings. Without the murmurs and claps from the cheap seats, his bombast sounded a tad flat.
Gingrich was so frustrated by the quiet that he threatened to boycott any future debates where audience participation would be limited. “I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Gingrich told Fox News. “I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates.”
#page#Tonight may be a different story. Gingrich’s advisers are relieved that CNN will not prohibit audience participation, and they predict that Gingrich will feed off of the crowd. If moderator Wolf Blitzer brings up touchy issues about Gingrich’s past — specifically his personal life, as CNN’s John King did at the final South Carolina debate — Gingrich will be ready to pounce.
Romney backers shrug off Gingrich’s audience obsession. As Romney said earlier this week, “we’re not choosing a talk-show host.” His campaign sees an opportunity for Romney to appear more sober and restrained in comparison with Gingrich, and they say the candidate will keep his responses focused on winning over undecided television viewers, not only those inside the room.
#ad#That won’t be easy. Early on, if the audience verbally signals its support for Gingrich’s gusto, Gingrich advisers expect their candidate to ride the wave, knocking Blitzer and the press. In that situation, with Romney’s blitz on Gingrich’s record a sideshow, Gingrich may escape the extended exchanges on the past that damaged him in Monday’s debate. In contrast, if the audience is mum, or sporadic in its roars, Romney could dominate, pestering and prodding.
Indeed, should the crowd fizzle and Romney amp up his attacks, look for Gingrich to play victim, to blast Romney for going negative, and to pose as the sensible, positive frontrunner. As Gingrich said Tuesday, commenting on Romney’s dogged approach, “I just find that sad as a way to run for president. . . . Watching some desperate guy throw wild punches doesn’t get him very close to the presidency. People want stability, they want honesty, they want accuracy.”
Immigration bubbled up on Wednesday in a headline-grabbing spat between Romney and Gingrich, and you can expect the fight to continue between the pair in Jacksonville.
Both contenders have spent extensive time in Miami-Dade County this week, courting Hispanic voters. That bloc is crucial in Florida, and with Rubio and popular former Florida governor Jeb Bush on the sidelines, avoiding endorsements, it could be up for grabs. Gingrich insiders see an advantage on this front, due to Gingrich’s softer take on longtime illegal residents.
Speaking to Univision, Gingrich ridiculed Romney’s immigration plan, calling “self-deportation” an “Obama-level fantasy.” He added that Romney’s position highlights his detachment. “You have to live a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million income for no work to have some fantasy this far from reality,” he said.
Romney punched back in his own Univision interview on Wednesday, sending a message to Gingrich that when they meet face to face, he won’t let that argument go unanswered. “It’s very sad for a candidate to resort to that sort of epithet,” Romney said. “It’s just inappropriate. There are differences between candidates on different issues, but we don’t attack each other with those types of terrible terms. I’m not anti-immigrant, I’m pro-immigrant. I like immigration. Immigration has been an extraordinary source of strength in this country.”
#page#Romney’s rebuke may be boosted by Gingrich’s overreach. After Rubio slammed Gingrich for calling Romney “anti-immigrant,” Gingrich’s campaign pulled the radio ad. As Romney folks see it, a quarrel on deportation and reform proposals is probably on tonight’s agenda, but so too is a discussion about tactics, and whether Gingrich has gone too far. Should the discussion become heated, expect Romney to mention Gingrich’s past reference to Spanish as the “language of living in the ghetto,” for instance. But Romney advisers say he will lead with economic ideas.
Gingrich aides are not worried about Romney becoming a darling of Florida’s Hispanic community in the final days. In 2008, the advisers note, Romney received only 15 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida’s primary. But there is some concern. Romney has been up on the airwaves for weeks with English- and Spanish-language ads, and they acknowledge that Romney has quickly adjusted to Florida’s political climate after using heavier language on deportation in South Carolina.
At Monday’s debate, Romney and Gingrich tangled about Gingrich’s past work for Freddie Mac. Gingrich described his role as that of a consultant and historian for the federal home-mortgage lender; Romney countered that Gingrich’s work seemed eerily similar to that of a Beltway lobbyist. This discussion went on for a few minutes, and tonight, we will likely hear more.
How Gingrich responds to this line of questioning will be important. The former speaker is riding high in Florida polls, but as the state is rocked by foreclosures, he may be vulnerable. Romney has been holding housing-themed events all week, huddling with distressed homeowners about their problems — and warning them to avoid supporting a politician with Freddie Mac ties.
Gingrich advisers believe that they have largely defused the issue by releasing files from Gingrich’s tenure at the government-sponsored enterprise. Romney’s campaign aides smell blood, and believe Gingrich’s Freddie Mac records will poison his appeal to frustrated Floridians. Look for Romney to adopt a kinder, gentler approach this evening, supplementing those pointed remarks from Monday with empathy for those hurt by the mortgage giant.
As GOP consultants see it, the Freddie Mac question may be the most important. The clash between Gingrich and Romney on other matters may lead cable news, but beyond electability and the economy, this issue is salient. Romney’s challenge is to convince voters that Gingrich is responsible for Florida’s housing crisis and widespread unemployment in some way.
Gingrich’s team says Romney may underscore Freddie Mac, but with the contract released and in the public domain, they do not fear what’s coming and plan to paint any further Romney words on the issue as futile. As Gingrich recently told CNN, “It goes back to the contract, [which] says I’m a consultant. It doesn’t say lobbying anywhere. And so you end up with Mitt Romney, who now has a contract and doesn’t want to believe it. Well, I can’t make him believe things. He’s allowed to run around and say what he wants to. It just happens to be untrue.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.