Thursday night's GOP primary debate in Jacksonville, Florida was hosted by CNN, the Florida GOP, and the Hispanic Leadership Network. Wolf Blitzer was the moderator, so that was a definite step up from the previous one with John King.
It was a different kind of debate, leading off with a question from the audience about illegal immigration - well, it was Florida. That led into a tit for tat between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney about the attack ads each are running against the other. It went on for what felt like forever. At times like that, Blitzer looked like a weak moderator. Or, maybe he was taking a quick nap. Either way, those two went on and on without bringing any real substance to the discussion.
Word is that Mitt Romney has a new debate coach. It showed. He was strong and self-assured in his back and forths with Newt. It took Rick Santorum to finally say that the petty bickering between the two front runners was out of control and that the debate should move to real substance. The audience loved that. I did, too.
Rick Santorum had a good night. He mostly avoided his biggest downfall - that part of his personality that tends to be mean-spirited and whiny. He provided strong answers on his thoughts about religion and governing, and on why his wife would be a good First Lady - though I hated that trivial question. He was strong on foreign policy, as well, and brought up the travesty that was the Obama blunder in Honduras early on in this administration.
Newt Gingrich did himself no favors tonight. He was angry and defensive. His usual self-confidence was lagging and the audience didn't give him much of a boost. The audience seemed to favor Romney.
Ron Paul had a good night. There was not much discussion on foreign policy so he was strong on domestic conservatism. Wolf Blitzer asked about his health, considering his age, and he ended up challenging Blitzer to a 25 mile bike ride in Texas. He said he would be happy to produce his medical records, as the others did. He also reminded Blitzer that there are laws about discrimination due to age. That was amusing.
By Santorum and Paul having good nights, the nod goes to Romney. He won it by rising above Newt's attacks while strongly defending himself. The other three men on the stage just gelled together in contrast.
The Florida primary is Tuesday, January 31, 2012. Romney is a little bit ahead of Gingrich, if the polls are to be believed. Nothing happened during this debate to change that.