Mewt Gromney

Romney and Gingrich trade places in the Tampa debate.  

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich faced off in Tampa Monday.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Florida is a haven for retirees, and Newt Gingrich seemed like one during the GOP debate in Tampa Monday night. Instead of the firebrand he’s been in the previous seventeen outings, he was in a constant state of repose, ducking attacks, tolerating moderators, and generally just paddling around in the shallow waves hoping for a nice soak. Mitt Romney was shark-like: He wore a permanent smile and attacked with emotionless precision.

In New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich was on the attack and Mitt Romney remained cool and calm. In Florida the relationship has reversed. The Romney campaign prides itself on its long view. It has a game plan for a protracted primary fight. But the tense and relentless Romney looked like a man unsure that everything was going according to plan. In the end, it was probably his night. But it was a brittle, shaky victory that probably won’t change the dynamic much.

Romney attacked Gingrich immediately and went for every artery. Twice he said Gingrich “resigned in disgrace.” He accused the former speaker of influence-peddling, called him a creature of K Street and reminded viewers that he had palled around with Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi while criticizing Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. 

Romney has clearly cracked the seal on the Destroy Newt briefing book. Gingrich is running as a Washington outsider. Romney called B.S. (Or as he says it: Golly No!) He kept pointing out that Gingrich’s initial claim that he had provided advice “as a historian,” was laughable. “I don’t think we can possibly retake the White House if the person who’s leading our party is the person who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac.”

It was obvious that Mitt was making inroads because Gingrich, one of the best attack politicians around, let out a little whimper. “You know, there is a point in the process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty. And that’s sad.” (In fact, he sounded a bit like Romney had when he bemoaned the attacks on his integrity in the last debate in South Carolina.)

Gingrich is skilled at jujitsu. In the last debate, he turned his second wife’s claims about his adultery into a star debate moment. A creature of Washington, he is running strong as the outsider. But in Tampa, he was not able to successfully redirect the “influence peddling” accusations. His defense, which lingered on electric cooperatives and the difference between gross revenue and personal income, seemed obtuse. Just as Mitt Romney—who may never have worked on Wall Street—is of Wall Street, Gingrich—not a technical lobbyist—is a part of the influence-peddling game.

It was clear that Romney’s attacks irritated Gingrich. “I understand your technique,” he said at end of their most pointed exchange. But he never bestirred himself. Nothing was declared stupid and he didn’t get within miles of zany. At one point he did say Romney was a “lousy historian” for giving the incorrect date for the vote to reprimand him—a technical point that was lost on probably everyone.

Gingrich seemed stuck at the tail end of an exhale throughout the night. He not only didn’t defend himself terribly well, he failed to rouse his fans. In previous states he has won the secular “amen” vote because that’s what people say to the television when he lands a verbal blow. They were scarce tonight. He did have one good moment though at the tail end of his set-to with Romney. “They’re not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay,” Mr. Gingrich said, in a rare moment when he broke his zen. “They’re sending somebody to Washington to change it, and that requires somebody who’s prepared to be controversial when necessary.”

In the end, Romney took a variety of facts, mastered them, and pressed the case against a formidable opponent repeatedly. If GOP voters are looking for someone who can battle Obama in debates, Romney showed that he has skills beyond merely repeating that he has been in the private sector.

Despite this strong offense, Romney was still weak on defense. He continues to have trouble talking about his tax returns without giving the feeling that he is simultaneously looking for a back door to escape the discussion entirely. When asked if he would release his taxes beyond the last year or so as his father did, Romney said he would not. “You know, I agree with my dad on a lot of things, but we also disagree. And—and going out with 12 years of returns is not something I’m going to do.” Wow, a moment of disagreement with the father he so revered. There must be some deep principle involved. Romney has never offered one.

Rick Santorum had another strong debate. He took on both of the men who are ahead of him in the polls. “If you believe in capitalism,” he asked his rivals, “why did you support the bailout of Wall Street?” His closing answer promoted himself as the real conservative who won’t bend under pressure. “When push came to shove, they got pushed,” he said. “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand.”

Though there were several pointed exchanges, in the end, the Tampa debate was tepid. The audience did not applaud, which gave the candidates nothing to feed on. The four men also all looked like they were sweating, making the event feel like the last stage in a brutal endurance contest. No such luck. There’s another debate Thursday.