Who Won the Florida NBC GOP Debate? Newt Gingrich First, Ron Paul Second, Mitt Romney Last


Are we watching the meltdown of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney? In Monday night’s NBC News Republican debate in Tampa, Florida, it sure looked that way.

Fending off pointed attacks by fellow GOP candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum while trying himself to deliver sharp rhetoric against his opponents, Romney looked under-matched, flustered, stiff, and at times just babbled his way through questions.

In comparison, Gingrich looked like he still had all the momentum from Saturday’s South Carolina primary win. He calmly answered questions ranging from economics to foreign policy to his own involvement with mortgage house Freddie Mac. Though his policy stances were sometimes suspect or even hypocritical, Gingrich looked the most like the future GOP presidential nominee.

Related story: Drinking Gingrich's Kool-Aid Will Sink the GOP

Marginalized by the Romney-Gingrich battle, Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) almost had no impact on the debate. Tonight for the first time showed that moving forward in the GOP primaries, these two candidates will become less and less important.

Perhaps the biggest moments of the debate came when Paul — prodded three times by debate moderator Brian Williams about running as an independent — said he would not go for the presidency on a third party ticket. In polls, Paul lags significantly behind both Gingrich and Romney. A third party run for the libertarian seemed like the most viable option.

The biggest surprise in the debate: Gingrich was not asked about his personal transgressions, specifically about the “open marriage” he asked second wife Marianne Gingrich for. This story had been heavily debated in the news for the last few days, and was sure to be a point that Romney or the socially conservative Santorum would have jumped on.

This issue might be bigger in the coming days, and in the next GOP debate on Thursday.

Just two days after Gingrich threw a stick between the spokes of the Romney presidential machine by winning the South Carolina primary, the candidates again gathered in Tampa, ahead of the January 31 Florida primary. A strong showing in the week leading up to the Florida vote is critical, especially for Romney. After his 12-point South Carolina win, Gingrich has surged ahead in the Florida polls, leading 41% to the former Massachusetts governor's 32%.

Still, Romney does expect to win Florida. Almost 200,000 absentee ballots have already been cast in the state, many of which it is believed favor Romney. Romney is also spending lavishly in the state, including a $2.3 million broadcast buy for ads made this week.

But as Gingrich showed last week when he bested Romney in a South Carolina and again tonight, debate very much matters.

Related story: Romney "Can't Tell the Truth"

One point Gingrich hammered Romney on was his tax rate. Gingrich forced Romney to announce that he will release his tax records on Tuesday. Romney said, "I'm proud that I pay a lot of taxes.” Romney has said that he pays a 15% tax rate – a significantly lower rate than the average American. He reaps millions of dollars a year from his former work at Bain Capital, though, maintains a low tax bracket. Gingrich in comparison pays a 31% tax rate.

Romney blasted Gingrich for his work at mortgage giant Freddie Mac, but ignored his own financial links to the organization.

"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. Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich $1.6 million at the same time Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars."

Romney Attacks Gingrich on Freddie Mac

Romney, though, had as much as $500,000 invested in Freddie Mac. All GOP candidates have blamed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for contributing to the housing crisis that helped to drag the nation into the Great Recession. 

Through a barrage of foreign policy questions from NBC’s Williams on topics ranging from Cuba to Iran, all of the candidates but Paul sounded flimsy. Santorum, in answering a question on how he would deal with Iran’s threats in the Strait of Hormuz, was the most hawkish of the candidates, outlining plans to attack Iran immediately. Romney stumbled through a statement about building a stronger Navy (he falsely said America’s Navy was the weakest since 1917).

Paul made clear that he would pursue soft diplomacy with any foreign threats, including Iran.

Highlights on Ron Paul's Foreign Policy

The only point of agreement the candidates had was on economics. Resoundingly, all four men said that they believed in a free market system free of heavy government constraint.

“Markets need to be open for the economy to work,” Romney said. There was little debate on the issue.

Ahead of next week’s Florida primary, Gingrich looks like he is gaining incredible steam. Romney — shell-shocked after it seemed he had all but wrapped up the GOP nomination — looks like he’s out of answers.

And it might be a two-man race soon. In Florida, Rick Santorum is currently polling 11% while Paul is polling a measly 8%. Both men did little to push themselves to the fore tonight.

Monday’s debate turned out to be the slug fest most pundits thought it would be, with Gingrich the last man standing.

Romney Sets the Tone Early – Hitting Back

Photo Credit: NBC