The bully goes down

    The winner of Republican debate last night was Wolf Blitzer. More on that in a moment.Mitt Romney strengthened himself considerably, in the final clash before Tuesday’s Florida primary. Fast on his feet and verbally nimble, he stood up to the bloviating bully, Newt Gingrich, and took him down – four separate times. Democrats who dream of a Newt nomination, and who rightfully believe that Newt would be roadkill in a general election, were surely disappointed. And sane Republicans were surely relieved, because they too know that Newt would be roadkill in a general election.We’ll have to wait and see whether Florida voters agree – if they’re determined to boost Newt, they’ll just ignore what happened on stage – but it all seemed clear from where I sat. Let’s review:1. The media momentWolf Blitzer addressed Newt: “Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances…And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency?”Newt: “Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way…This is a nonsense question.”Uh oh, not again. Newt was getting into Richard Nixon mode, with yet another knee-jerk jab at duh media, and, naturally, out in the audience, the credulous and the clueless were already putting their hands together.But then an interesting thing happened. Blitzer came right back at him. He wasn’t going to play the fool, not after Newt lied so blatantly on stage last week. During the “open marriage” flap, Newt had told John King that his campaign had offered ABC News several witnesses who would’ve testified on camera that Newt had never proposed an open marriage, and that ABC News had refused. All lies. Newt’s campaign finally admitted yesterday that they had never offered up any witnesses.So Blitzer wasn’t about to indulge the guy. Instead, he stood his ground and followed up: “But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that ‘He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.’ I didn’t say that. You did.”Newt: “I did. And I’m perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate…” Blitzer, again: “But if you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that.”Amidst the usual booing (no doubt directed at Blitzer, who couldn’t have cared less), there was a momentary pause – and Romney siezed the opening:”Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”Kaboom. Romney called out Newt as a coward. And Newt caved.”OK. All right,” said Newt. The nascent attack on Blitzer, for having the temerity to ask a legitimate question, was over. Newt then invited Romney to say whatever he wanted. And Romney did, at length (his trustee had put money in a Swiss account for awhile, U.S. taxes were paid, etc., and furthermore, “I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments”).Newt had no comeback, and the episode ended. Advantage, Romney.2. The immigration momentOne of Newt’s radio ads in Florida, narrated in Spanish and aimed at the Hispanic community, had attacked Romney as “anti-immigrant.” Newt pulled the ad off the air after Senator Marco Rubio, a hero in the Hispanic community, said that it was “inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn’t belong in this campaign.” When this episode came up at the debate, Newt didn’t bother to defend his ad, he just insisted that Romney was the most anti-immigrant candidate on stage.Romney jumped in: “That’s simply unexcusable. That’s inexcusable….My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don’t use a term like that. You can say we disagree on certain policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally, to expand legal immigration, as I have proved, that that’s somehow ‘anti-immigrant’ is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long. And I’m glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it. I’m glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets….I’m not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them. Those are your words, not my words.”It just so happens that, over the span of debates, Romney has indeed positioned himself to Newt’s right on immigration. But what mattered last night were the optics. Romney took the fight to Newt, and Newt did not fight back. And by denouncing Newt’s defunct radio ad, by calling Newt’s charge “repulsive,” he reinforced Newt’s negative image as a partisan hit man (an image that many Republicans view as non-presidential). 3. The space cadet moment Playing to the NASA constituency, which is big in Florida, Newt did one of his long riffs about putting more Americans on the moon, and about how, if he was president, he would beat the Chinese in the contest for the first moon colony. (Huh? There is such a contest? I did not know that.) Newt mooned us for so long, I nearly plumb forgot that there’s a federal budget crunch and scant money for such a lavish pursuit.Anyway, Romney finally got the chance to weigh in. He did it by slam-dunking the moon fantasy: “I spent 25 years in business. 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.'”….We have seen in politics – we’ve seen politicians – and Newt, you’ve been part of this – go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear. The Speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend untold amount of money having a colony on the moon. I know it’s very exciting on the Space Coast. (But) 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. We’ve got to say no to this kind of spending.”Newt came back with something weak (“I think it’s important for presidents to know about local things”), but the damage was done. Romney had pulled off a three-fer. He painted Newt as a non-conservative big spender. He painted Newt as unrealistic and whacky. And he painted himself (believe it or not, against all odds) as a non-pandering executive who refuses to tell people what they want to hear.4. The money moment Early on, Newt sought to deflect attention from his $1.6-million Freddie Mac paycheck by targeting Romney’s finances: “We discovered to our shock, Governor Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that. Governor Romney has an investment in Goldman Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians. So maybe Governor Romney in the spirit of openness should tell us how much money he’s made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments? And let’s be clear about that.”In reponse, Romney talked about his blind trusts, insisted “I don’t own stock in either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac” – but then came the money quote.He turned to Newt: “And Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments?”Newt hesitated, said nothing…And Romney seized the opening: “You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”Kaboom. And no comeback from Newt.The visuals were even more devastating. When Newt attacks, he never looks his opponent in the eye. When Romney counterattacks, he does. He looks stronger for doing so. When Newt is trumped, as he was repeatedly last night, he looks away. He looks weaker for doing so. These stylistics may seem superficial, but voterts often view them as character clues.Granted, Romney did have some bad moments last night. He relied too heavily on his “blind trust” defense – particularly since, as a ’94 Senate candidate facing Ted Kennedy, he had scoffed that “the blind trust is an age-old ruse.” He didn’t know that one of his own Florida ads (his voice says he approved the message) attacked Newt for allegedly maligning the Spanish language. He continued to have problems squaring his defense of “Romneycare” with his criticism of “Obamacare.” And he defended his decision to vote in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic primary (for Paul Tsgonas) with the weirdly Clintonian line, “I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot.”It appears that the bruising primary season has hurt Romney as well. In the new bipartisan Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, released last night, 31 percent of Americans view him favorably, and 36 percent view him negatively – a significant finding, because Bob Dole, John McCain, and George W. Bush all had net positives at this point in their respective nomination fights. And when matched against President Obama, Romney trails by six points among registered voters – a four-point boost for Obama in the past 30 days.But perhaps the key finding is that Obama buries Newt by 18 points (55 to 37). If Florida Republicans want to boost the prospects for a Goldwater-style debacle in November, they need only vote Tuesday for last night’s loser. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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