Viewers of the first Republican presidential debate in Florida saw a newly aggressive Mitt Romney who engaged in a lengthy exchange with Newt Gingrich. The media will focus on the bickering over Gingrich’s alleged lobbying and tenure as speaker of the House, but the tough talk on overthrowing the communist regime of Cuba is what electrified the audience.
About 10% of the Florida primary voters are Cuban-Americans, prompting the moderator to ask Mitt Romney about his stance on the Castro regime and how he’d handle a potential refugee crisis if it were to fall. Romney was applauded, even though the audience was asked to be quiet, when he said he’d first “thank heavens that Castro has gone to his maker.” He sharply criticized President Obama’s softening of America’s policy towards Cuba and praised a democratic activist who died in Cuba while on a hunger strike.
Newt Gingrich was likewise applauded by following that up with saying, “I don’t think Fidel [Castro] is going to meet his maker. He’s going to another place.” Gingrich then won the biggest reaction of the night when he said that he would not tolerate four more years of the Castro dictatorship and would support a “Cuban Spring” by supporting every democratic activist achieve regime change.
Rick Santorum spoke in similar terms and broadened the discussion. He warned of the anti-American alliance that has formed between Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Iran and the “jihadists.” He said that these enemies are elated to have a base only 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Ron Paul was the lone exception to a policy of regime change towards Cuba. He said that it is not 1962 anymore and that the U.S. should diplomatically and economically engage the Cuban regime, comparing it to how relations have improved with Vietnam.
Iran’s threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz also were discussed. Mitt Romney said that such an action would be an act of war and that the U.S. military should respond to reopen the route. He also said that the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has ever been since 1917 and that he would increase annual production of naval ships from 8 per year to 15.
Gingrich promised to decisively respond to Iran and mocked the Obama administration for canceling its planned missile defense exercises with Israel, saying it is “dangerous” for Iran to believe that the U.S. is weak. Ron Paul said that the U.S. has committed an act of war against Iran by “blockading” the country and that an attack on the Strait of Hormuz would be “retaliation.” He dismissed the possibility that Iran would actually close the Strait because of its reliance on oil exports.
Rick Santorum gave the toughest answer on Iran, adding that the U.S. should use military force if necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He equated the Iranian theocracy with Al-Qaeda and gave a long list of Iranian “acts of war,” including taking American citizens hostage, attacking ships and embassies, plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil and helping to kill American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mitt Romney worked hard to blunt Gingrich’s momentum from his victory in South Carolina. Two polls now have Gingrich leading Romney by 8 and 9 points in Florida, which holds its primary on January 31. He began the debate by ticking off a series of criticisms of Gingrich, saying he had to “resign in disgrace” as speaker, then became an “influence peddler,” sided with Nancy Pelosi on cap-and-trade and opposed Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan. Gingrich said that he would not “waste time” on Romney’s “misinformation” but accused him of stating four falsehoods. He then brought up past statements by John McCain and Mike Huckabee stating that Romney “can’t tell the truth.”
Romney did not back down and brought up the money Gingrich made working with Freddie Mac, the ethics investigation of him when he was speaker and how he lost support from his colleagues during his tenure. Gingrich said that Romney is a “terrible historian” and defended his record as Speaker. He said that he was cleared of all ethics charges except for one, which he dismissed as being irrelevant. He said the charges were brought by Democrats seeking to undermine him.
Ron Paul’s only direct criticism of a rival during the debate was of Gingrich. He said that his time as speaker was “chaotic.” Gingrich appealed to Ron Paul’s supporters at least three times, praising his opponent’s stances on the Federal Reserve, gold-backed currency and inflation.
Rick Santorum questioned the commitment of Romney and Gingrich to capitalism for supporting the bailouts. He saved his major attacks until the end of the debate, when he said that Romney was the first governor to institute cap-and-trade and that his health care plan was the basis for ObamaCare. Santorum said that Gingrich supported a federal individual health care mandate for 20 years and cap-and-trade. “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand,” Santorum said.
The general consensus of political observers is that the debate will not alter the polls much. Nate Silver tweeted that it was a “low-impact debate,” possibly because of NBC’s instructions to the audience to restrain their emotion. Larry Sabato tweeted that there is “no way the debate changed the current trajectory in Florida.”
Silver felt that Santorum won the debate, giving him a B. He gave Romney a B-, Gingrich a C+ and Paul a C. On the Romney-Gingrich battle, Silver said, “I’m not sure Romney won that exchange but Gingrich certainly lost it.” Sabato gave Romney a slight victory with a B+, Gingrich a B, Santorum a B- and Paul with a C.
If it is true that the poll standings in Florida won’t be affected by this debate, then expect an even fierier show on Thursday, when the candidates will debate for the last time before the primary.
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