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Debate Thoughts: Newt as the Strongman in Winter

Two quick thoughts about the Florida debate. First, while it was generally too flat and plodding to change any momentum, I think Romney learned something important tonight: He learned that he can provoke Gingrich into spouting all manner of nonsense—what a certain former House Speaker once called “pious baloney”—pretty much at will, just by pressing Newt on his influence-peddling days. No doubt the lobbying/Freddie Mac albatross will continue to weigh down Gingrich, just like the tax-return issue dogged Romney. But, unlike Romney, Gingrich is much too proud or delusionally self-important to come clean. Or even to spin his K-Street CV as anything less than God’s work. Romney has a lot to build on here.

Second, Freddie Mac and Lipitor-lobbying aside, Gingrich generally looked deflated and a bit pathetic tonight. Most of the post-game analysis I heard chalked it up to Newt doing his best impersonation of a president, so as to convince party elders he can be trusted with the nomination. I took away something else entirely, which is that Newt simply has a hard time bringing his A-game when he can't whip the crowd into a blood-lusting frenzy. (The rules of the debate prohibited applause in response to particular answers.) There’s a word for someone who exhibits such tendencies. But it isn’t “presidential.” It’s “demagogue.”

Watching Newt was like watching a onetime strongman forced to stand trial for war crimes: It was mostly subdued mutterings punctuated by the occasional outburst that only reminds you how far he is from the height of his powers. If Newt changes only one thing from here on out, it has to be insisting on real-time applause. 

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