Gingrich Can't Find His Lucky Race Card; Loses Edge in Fla. Debate and Polls
When you're running for president against a guy with endless streams of money and the backing of major political players, you really can't afford to have a less-than-stellar night in a nationally televised debate. But that's exactly the kind of night Newt Gingrich had in Thursday's Republican presidential debate, sponsored by CNN and its sibling Spanish-language network, CNN en Español. For his part, Romney had a less-than-perfect night, but he didn't need to ace this debate; he just needed not to lose it.
It's been a rough couple of days for Newt Gingrich, who, just last week, was poised for a victory romp in Tuesday's Florida primary. In South Carolina, whose primary he won on Saturday, Gingrich played racial themes to a Republican Party base that is entirely white, while simultaneously hammering his chief rival, Mitt Romney, as a cold-hearted tycoon who destroyed the lives of working-class white people when the firm he led, Bain Capital, shut down the factory that employed them. But in Florida, the G.O.P. is a bit more diverse, and anti-African-American themes aren't as effective. So Newt has not been able to fly his race card high.
Latest polls show Gingrich trailing Romney by as much as 9 points.
Gingrich's South Carolina win brought out the long knives of the party powerful: Bob Dole, the former GOP presidential nominee, issued a scathing statement, saying that Gingrich's unpopularity may have cost him the 1996 election. "Gingrich had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall," Dole wrote.
Elliot Abrams, a former Reagan administration official, challenged Gingrich's claim to the Gipper's mantle, and Ann Coulter said a Gingrich nomination guaranteed a win for President Barack Obama in the fall.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the toast of the Tea Party, called on Gingrich to stop airing a Spanish-language radio ad that paints Romney as "anti-immigrant" -- in a state where immigrants abound. (And some, notably in the Cuban community from which Rubio hails, actually belong to the GOP.) Meanwhile, Romney continued to air an ad claiming that Gingrich once called Spanish "the language of the ghetto."
The GOP's Immigration Conundrum
When asked about the ad by debate moderator Wolf Blitzer, Romney stumbled, saying he wasn't even sure if the anti-Gingrich ad was put out by his campaign. "There are a bunch of ads out there that are being organized by other people," Romney said (like maybe his superPAC, Restore Our Future).
But when Blitzer informed him that the ad bore the tagline, "I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this message," Romney turned to Gingrich, saying: "Did you say what the ad says or not? I don't know."
Gingrich denied that he made that statement specifically about Spanish -- it was apparently about all non-English languages. However true, it wasn't an answer that got him out of the woods.
When Romney chided Gingrich for having felt the need to stop airing his own immigration-themed ad about Romney, Gingrich continued to stand by his claim that Romney was anti-immigrant.
"I'll give you an opportunity to self-describe," Gingrich said. "You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family -- just tell me the language. I'm perfectly happy for you to explain what language you'd use."
Romney tried put himself in the immigrant category by noting that his father was born in Mexico. (He failed to note that his ancestors moved to Mexico to be part of a polygamous Mormon enclave.) "I'm not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them...," Romney said. "You know, our problem is not 11 million grandmothers."
The line drew a robust round of applause.
Fannie, Freddie, Lobbying and Taxes
In the round on personal tax filings and the source of the leading contenders' wealth, Romney and Gingrich fought to a draw, which, in the schematics of G.O.P. playing field, means that Romney won. (AlterNet's Joshua Holland has more on Romney's taxes here.)
When Romney went after Gingrich for his not-lobbying contract with the mortgage giant Freddie Mac, Gingrich noted that Romney's tax filings showed that he had investments in both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the other mortgage villain of the right. (The right-wing line on the housing crisis is that it was caused by Fannie and Freddie because they lent to people who couldn't afford the homes they were buying, which is often read as code for black people.)
Romney came off as an out-of-touch rich guy when he went on and on about how his "trustee" made all his investment decisions because his holdings were in a blind trust. (During the course of the debate, National Journal revealed that Romney actually had holdings in Fannie and Freddie that were not part of the trust.)
"Well, first of all, you'll notice that the governor wasn't aware of the ad he was running," Gingrich said. "He's not aware of the investments that were being made in his name."
Rick Santorum, momentarily playing nice with the big boys, urged Blitzer to return the conversation to other issues, saying that Gingrich had simply used the skills he developed as a congressman to help companies ("not the worst thing," he said), and that Romney had gotten rich because he "worked hard."
To the moon, Alice!
Amid the flak Gingrich has been taking this week, none has been quite so derisive as that showered on his proposal to colonize the moon. Ron Paul, natch, decried it as an unnecessarily expensive expansion of government. There was a method to Gingrich's big-idea madness, though: the space program is rooted in Florida, and the space shuttle has just been retired. That led Romney to point his criticism at what he implied was obvious pandering by Gingrich.
"Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now," Romney said. He prefaced his comments with this:"If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'"
And we know Mitt Romney likes to fire people.
The Return of Obamneycare
The hardest blows suffered by Romney in the debate came not from Gingrich, but from Santorum, who took Romney to task for the health-care program the former Massachusetts governor created for that commonwealth. Among the right's biggest issues is a call for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the health-care reform law signed by Obama. Like the ACA, Romney's reform plan is built around an individual mandate -- a requirement that citizens purchase health insurance or face a financial penalty.
Santorum was relentless, pounding Romney into giving a justification for the mandate -- sound bites of which are already dancing in the heads of Democratic ad-makers plotting for the general election.
"The system that we put in place in our state was something we worked out with the labor community, the health care community, business, and the citizens of the nation...," Romney said. "[I]f you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill, because under federal law if someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care. So we said, no more, no more free riders. We are insisting on personal responsibility. Either get the insurance or help pay for your care.
Newt Not Goin' Down Easy
Throughout the night, Gingrich was off his game. The pithy pairings of falsely-attributed worldviews were nowhere to be found as Newt instead tried to prove that he was the smartest little boy in the room, especially during the space fantasy part of the debate, when he talked of lift vehicles and the Atlas rocket.
But in his closing statement, Newt managed to fish his race card out of his pocket, however meekly and belatedly he offered it.
The 2012 presidential election, Gingrich concluded, "will be an American campaign open to every American who prefers a paycheck to food stamps, who prefers the Declaration of Independence to Saul Alinsky and who prefers a strong national security to trying to appease our enemies."
Now, that's the Newt we've come to know.
And in case you think he plans to go easy on Romney until Tuesday, be not assured. Gingrich's superPac, Winning Our Future, is about to drop another video bomb against the venture capitalist, this one titled "Blood Money: Romney's Medicare Scandal."
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. She also writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan