Obama's mishandling of the Middle East takes center stage in last stand before the Florida primary.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went at in what Nate Silver called “probably the most important GOP debate” of the campaign. The focus was mainly on the charges the two frontrunners have made against each other but when it came to foreign policy, the audience cheered Romney’s defense of Israel and Rick Santorum’s denunciation of the Obama administration towards “militant socialists” in Latin America.
The polls out of Florida have fluctuated wildly over the past week. In the days after Gingrich’s South Carolina victory, polls had him ahead by 8 or 9 points. Now, Romney has an average lead of 5 points, with several polls having him winning by 7 or 8 points. The two frontrunners swapped positions in just four days. The primary will be held on Tuesday, January 31.
On foreign policy, Mitt Romney had the most applause when he was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He ridiculed the Obama administration for “disrespecting” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for peace negotiations to be based on the 1967 borders and for criticizing Israel’s settlements in the West Bank while remaining silent as terrorist rockets fell on Israeli cities. He gave a passionate defense of Israel, saying that it is the Palestinians who are uninterested in a two-state solution. He argued that both Hamas and Fatah seek the destruction of Israel and that Palestinian children are taught with textbooks advocating the killing of Jews.
Newt Gingrich’s best moment on foreign policy was also about Israel. He defended his earlier statement that the Palestinians are an “invented” people, saying that before the 1970s, the Palestinians were just referred to as Arabs with Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian or Lebanese nationalities. He said the Palestinian leadership is more interested in conflict than in improving the lives of the Palestinian people and uses the process as “war by another form.” The crowd loved it when he said that on his first day in office, he’d sign an executive order moving the embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Rick Santorum was enthusiastically applauded when spoke about the intercontinental alliance between Islamic extremists like Iran and the “militant socialists” in Latin America, specifically in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia that are “spreading like a cancer.” The source of that cancer, Santorum said, is the Castro regime. He said that President Obama had “sided with the leftists, sided with the Marxists” in Latin America against U.S. allies like Colombia and those in Honduras who tried to stop Manuel Zelaya, a Chavez ally, from forming a dictatorship.
Ron Paul repeatedly advocated using diplomacy and free trade as the best way of promoting security. He said that his rivals’ policies towards Cuba and Latin America would backfire and cause anti-Americanism because of their “bully attitude.” His most well-received foreign policy-related line was when he said that most of the American people “don’t see a jihadist under the bed every night.”
There were several clashes between the candidates in this debate. The biggest were between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Romney put him on the defensive over an ad that called him an “anti-immigrant,” which Florida Senator Marco Rubio defended him against. Romney said it was “repulsive,” that disagreements should be allowed to happen without “highly-charged epithets” and demanded an apology. Gingrich said that Romney would deport “grandmothers” who came to the U.S. illegally, which he denied.
The two frontrunners also battled over an ad accusing Gingrich of describing Spanish as the “language of the ghetto.” Wolf Blitzer asked Romney about it, who said he hadn’t seen the ad and was unsure if his campaign was behind it. He then asked Gingrich if that quote was accurate, to which he replied, “it’s taken totally out of context.” Romney responded, “Oh, well then he said it.” Later in the debate, Blitzer informed Romney that CNN confirmed that his campaign was running the ad, generating boos from the audience.
Gingrich’s relationship with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was also a point of contention. Romney said that the country “needed a whistleblower, not a horn-tooter” and that Gingrich’s second contract did not rule out lobbying. Gingrich rebutted that his campaign discovered earlier in the week that Romney has shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Goldman Sachs, which is behind a lot of foreclosures in Florida. He asked Romney to say how much money he has made off of foreclosing peoples’ homes. Romney explained that he had a trustee manage a blind trust that was responsible for those shares and that Gingrich also had some.
Gingrich was also attacked for his pledge to build an American colony on the moon by the end of his second term. Romney accused him of pandering in each state and said that “promising hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy is what got us into the trouble we’re in now.” Gingrich said that his plan would be mostly privately-funded and was doable with reform of NASA.
Rick Santorum shined when he told Romney and Gingrich to stop the “petty personal attacks” and to “leave it alone and focus on the issues.” Gingrich agreed to do so and he later asked Romney for a truce. Gingrich also criticized Wolf Blitzer for continuing with questions meant to stir up conflict, which Blitzer forcefully responded to.
Santorum’s hardest punch was landed on Romney over his health care plan in Massachusetts. He said it was the basis for ObamaCare and that Massachusetts has the highest health care costs in the country. One in four people do not get the care they need, Santorum said. He also said it would undermine Romney’s ability to beat Obama because “we can’t give away this issue this election.” Romney pledged to repeal ObamaCare and said that his plan was only directed at the 8% who did not have health care, while Obama’s affects everyone.
Overall, political analysts felt that Romney got the better of Gingrich. Nate Silver, grading on strategy and execution, gave grades of an A/A to Romney, A-/A to Santorum, B-/C to Paul and D-/B to Gingrich. Larry Sabato gave a B+ to Romney, B+ to Santorum, C+ to Gingrich and a C to Paul.
Dick Morris tweeted that if Romney wins Florida on Tuesday, then “the race is largely over” because of the favorability of February’s contests to Romney. Morris explains that the Nevada caucus will be held next Saturday, February 4, which is certain to be won by Romney. The Maine caucus, which Romney will also probably win, begins that day and lasts a week. On February 7, Colorado and Minnesota, two states that Romney won last time, are holding caucuses. Then, on February 22, the only debate of the month will be held. The contests in Michigan and Arizona are held on February 28. Romney is certain to win the former and, in Morris’ opinion, very likely to win the latter. If Romney wins Florida, that will be a winning streak of 7 contests in a 30-day period.
If Romney holds his lead in the polls, then he will win Florida and will be the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
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