Last night’s debate highlighted Mitt’s debate strengths and Newt’s weakness.
Preparation: No one on the stage is ever more prepared than Mitt for a debate. In 19 debates, topics have covered issues as varied as contraception to moon colonies. Last night Mitt was fully prepared not only to make his points, but to anticipate the counterpoint and to respond with strength. Case in point: the Fannie Mae lobby question. As Mitt made his point that Newt was for all practical purposes a lobbyist, I watched Gingrich, who could barely hold in his glee as he anticipated his response. He thought he had Mitt where he wanted him. Newt then leveled his accusation that Mitt had investments in both entities, thinking he’d just scored the zinger of the night. Mitt coolly explained that the stock he owned was through a blind trust over which Mitt does not have investment control, through mutual funds. Mitt then countered with the point that Newt, too, has investments in these entities. OUCH! Newt’s only counter was that his investments were much smaller than Mitt’s. Not terribly satisfying.
Discipline: When Mitt is asked a question he knows how he wants to respond. Often he has 3-4 points he wants to make, and methodically goes through that list. Newt does not show this discipline. In the NBC debate this week it was clear that Newt thrives on emotion, not mental discipline, in his performances. He relies on the audience’s response to pump him up, and when he’s on defense he glowers and fumes. When Mitt’s on defense you can see him take notes and prepare his counter. And Mitt gets energized when needed: last night’s response to Newt’s negative immigration ad was widely praised as a glowing moment for Mitt. See more on that point below.
Strength of Ideas: It’s been widely noted now after the NBC debate that Newt was very flat without the crowd. Meanwhile, second to perhaps last night, Mitt’s performance at the NBC debate was his best. It was idea vs. idea. Newt’s “grandiose” ideas vs. Mitt’s disciplined ideas, and Mitt won. And that’s the format that the debates against President Obama will be: reduced, if any, audience participation, one on one, idea vs. idea. In that context Newt floundered, Mitt prospered. The last two debates have indisputably made clear Mitt’s the man to debate Obama.
Presence: Debate success requires presence. CNN’s Todd Graham, national championship and award-winning debate coach, wrote today in an article entitled “Romney beats Gingrich at his own game”:
No matter how good your argument is, your delivery must be convincing. Romney made his stand in Florida. He changed his demeanor. And that one change was more important than all the other improvements combined. I believe Republicans in the South Carolina primary rejected Romney because he didn’t look or act like a winner in the debate there. He does now. He bested Gingrich on attitude in front of a raucous crowd — Gingrich’s usual “comfort zone.” In other words, he beat Gingrich at his own game.
The first example was when he told Gingrich to stop calling him “anti-immigrant.” Romney stared down the former House speaker and said, “The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don’t use a term like that.” What followed next was telling. Gingrich looked away and actually mumbled (almost inaudibly) “I’ll tell you what … ” And trailed off. The lecturer (Gingrich) got lectured! It wasn’t the slick Mitt with the professional style anymore. It was a man-to-man stare-down. And Newt blinked. Romney was indignant and believable. That one debate moment might have shifted the balance permanently in his favor.
Riding the crowd: Even in the debate last night, in which the crowd was not hushed but was just plainly pro-Mitt, Newt was, again, flat. Said Politico:
Gingrich was never totally able to find his groove with this crowd, which was sitting in Jacksonville, a Romney stronghold. He seemed to try to tailor some of his statements at different points to the crowd, but it was never a perfect fit.
He got some applause here and there, even some strong applause at certain points. But Gingrich’s ability to draw energy from the fiery crowd was thwarted, and it was once again clear how much he uses the audience to shape his debate performances.
When the energy isn’t there, Newt fizzles. We simply cannot have that against Obama.
Letting Emotions Get the Best of You. Newt’s “rise” in the polls was largely based on Newt’s becoming very emotional and attacking two debate moderators, Juan Williams and John King. But in this case he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Rich Lowry commented: “[Newt] struck me as tired and too ticked for his own good.”
Remember “bad Newt?” He’s been back since Iowa, but the media has been letting it slide. Last night the problems associated with “bad Newt” were on display. If you get angry, you lose your cool and can easily lose your discipline (I know that from being the parent of teenagers). If you can get the crowd behind you, you can become more confident, as we saw with Gingrich, but if people aren’t following behind you (like Congress didn’t follow Newt at the end of his tenure as speaker), your anger and lack of discipline can make you erratic and irrational. You’re convinced beyond reason that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. If you truly believe you’re the smartest man in the room, you’ll be all that much harder to convince until your anger and your ego subside. “Erratic” and “irrational” are two adjectives attached to Newt by those who knew him best in his prior political life. And two adjectives that make the Republican establishment (do these people really exist?) very, very worried about Newt Gingrich being our nominee, much less president.
Lack of Preparedness: Newt seemed reasonably prepared for some questions but it’s clear he relies on his historical references to beat people into submission. Since half of his audience doesn’t know who Saul Alinsky is, or what the context of Harry Truman’s comments from the 1940s or Nancy Reagan’s from 1995 were, Newt gets an undeserved pass. But when Mitt parried with “you’ve got investments in Fannie Mae, too,” Newt was woefully unprepared. He didn’t’ see that one coming. Relying on emotion can get you a long way, but it’s not a quality that will ultimately allow you to effectively debate or govern.
Newt has Trouble Returning Fire: As noted by Mr. Graham in the quote above, at one point Newt was reduced to mumbling in response to Mitt’s pointed attacks. He even called for a truce at one point. Mitt didn’t give him one and it’s fairly certain Obama won’t either. It’s probably true that most debaters are better at offense than defense. At least you look better when you attack. But Newt appears particularly bad at defense. He’s a deflector who rarely answers the question. That won’t go unnoticed in the general election, should Newt find himself there. With his “baggage,” he’ll be the target of relentless attacks. And in the debates, Obama will go after him. Who has really shown an ability to take the punches and come back swinging? It hasn’t been Newt. I chalk it up to his ego. He really doesn’t think he’s wrong. But if we’ve seen anything this cycle, Mitt learns. If he has an issue, he finds a way to address it. He’s become a better debater. He’s clarified his positions on the issues. He saw that he needed to release his tax returns (anyone find anything problematic in there yet? Hear those crickets?) He’s become better, while Newt seems to have backtracked.
Todd Graham summarizes as follows:
My takeaway: Republicans want somebody to fight for them, and after South Carolina, they seemed to think Gingrich was that guy. Not anymore. As of last night, Republican voters should see Romney as strong enough to be president. And more than anything, that’s why he won the debate.
Romney’s found his presence. And now that he has, there’s zero chance he’ll give it up the rest of the way through the primaries.
Floridians appear to agree. In this poll, taken after the NBC debate but before the CNN debate this week, Mitt is re-opening his lead in Florida. It’s currently 9 points (38% vs. 29% for Newt), with a margin of error of 4%. I can only imagine that will improve over the next few days.
More Debate Buzz
For more of a report on the debate, see this article at Politico“Consensus that Gingrich lost badly in Jacksonville…”. Here are just a few highlights:
“LAST NIGHT IN JACKSONVILLE – NEWT STUMBLED BADLY, ROMNEY WON”
The article quotes AP, who said it was Mitt’s “best debate performance yet”:
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Chuck Babington calls it ROMNEY’S BEST DEBATE YET: “Romney, forced to prove his resilience after a stinging loss in South Carolina, is showing why the so-called Republican establishment thinks he has the best discipline, organization and campaign smarts to challenge President Barack Obama this fall. The former Massachusetts governor turned in his best debate performance yet Thursday night, putting chief rival Newt Gingrich on the defensive from the opening minutes in Jacksonville, Fla., and never letting up for two hours….” http://bit.ly/yFRcG0
More on Gingrich’s shrinking performance without the crowd behind him:
This was the ‘Trading Places’ debate: Romney … became the aggressor, and Gingrich, who’s played the debate hall crowd like a musical instrument in the past, seemed to shrink from the attacks…It was Gingrich who needed to recapture his momentum and he simply couldn’t do it…The crowd was with Romney…. http://politi.co/vZC4YR
Newt’s attack on Wolf Blitzer was expected, but Wolf was ready:
WAS NEWT FINALLY NEUTERED? – GINGRICH MEDIA CRITIQUE FALLS FLAT: CNN moderator “Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich whether he was satisfied with the level of disclosure Romney had provided about his personal finances. Gingrich called it a ‘nonsense question,’ and the crowd roared in approval…Blitzer wasn’t about to let Gingrich off the hook, quoting Gingrich’s own rhetoric about Romney’s ‘Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.’ ‘I didn’t say that, you did,’ Blitzer said. ‘I did. And I’m perfectly happy to say that in an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues,’ Gingrich responded. ‘If you make a serious accusation against Gov. Romney like that, you need to explain that,’ Blitzer fired back.” Then Romney weighed in: “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?” The Los Angeles Times’ Mike Memoli: http://lat.ms/xIMsd6.
Finally, if you think we need someone who can debate Obama, the former article’s summary of debate scorecards will be of interest:
TIME’s Mark Halperin—Romney, A; Santorum, B-; Gingrich, C-; Paul, C-. http://ti.me/wbHgkR
LARRY SABATO—Romney B+; Santorum B+; Gingrich C+; Paul C. “Romney got what he needed for FL comeback,” he tweeted. http://bit.ly/wBIQJ1
THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Nate Silver—“Grades (strategy/execution): Romney (A/A); Santorum (A-/A); Paul (B-/C); Gingrich (D-/B).” http://nyti.ms/w7uwVp.
THE WASHINGTON POST’s Aaron Blake and Rachel Weiner: Winners: Romney, Santorum. Losers: Gingrich, Callista Gingrich, http://wapo.st/ySEY8J
CBS News’ Corbett Daly – Winners: Romney, Santorum, Paul. Losers: Gingrich. http://bit.ly/zojvzX
ABC’s Amy Walter and Michael Falcone: “Romney wins…Gingrich looks rattled and uneven.” http://abcn.ws/xu6xFk
BUZZFEED’s Zeke Miller: Romney, win; Santorum, cute; Gingrich, fail; Paul, “omg.” http://bit.ly/yALu2o
And if you’re still hungry, more good press for Mitt on CNN.
After last night, there’s no question in my mind: Mitt is the right choice to debate GOP values against Barack Obama.