Gingrich defends conservatism better than Romney at debate

If Mitt Romney had won South Carolina’s primary on Saturday and was using Monday’s debate as a victory lap of sorts en route to a victory in Florida’s primary on Jan. 31, he would have won the debate. He scored points by putting Newt Gingrich on the defensive when he accused Gingrich of influence peddling with Freddie Mac and health services groups.

But Romney lost South Carolina to Newt Gingrich, who has surged ahead of Romney in Florida, according to polls released yesterday by Insider Advantage, Rasmussen Reports and Public Policy Polling.  The former speaker is in a dogfight to stay alive in the 2012 Republican primary. 

So in this context, Romney did not win the debate because he did not do enough to improve his candidacy or hurt Gingrich’s, though he laid the foundation for what could be a sustained line of attack in the week before the Florida Republican vote. 

If Gingrich thumps Romney in Florida, it may be difficult for Romney to stem the tide of momentum that would propel Gingrich forward despite Romney’s significant financial and organizational advantages, on paper. 

And in a reversal of roles from previous debates, Gingrich actually acted like the front-runner in Monday’s NBC News/National Journal debate. 

But a question and answer session may have revealed why Gingrich is surging and Romney remained stagnant.

When moderator Brian Williams asked what Romney had done to “further the cause of conservatism as a Republican leader,” the first thing that came to Romney’s mind was… raising a family.

“Well, number one, I’ve raised a family,” Romney said. “I’ve, with my wife… raised five wonderful sons, and we have 16 wonderful grandkids.”

Then, Romney said he “worked in the private sector” and discussed his accomplishments when he was Massachusetts’ governor. The answer came out flat. Romney seemed like someone who didn’t want to answer the question and had no enthusiasm.

Gingrich, on the other hand, salivated at the question. He spoke of having worked with Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Art Laffer. He spoke of helping pass the Reagan economic plan, organizing GOPAC, building a majority in the House, developing a Conservative Opportunity Society.

Gingrich then used this question to hammer home his message that “only a genuine conservative who’s in a position to debate Obama and to show how wide the gap is between Obama’s policies and conservatism can, in fact, win” the general election.

Gingrich had similarly opened the debate, when asked about his electability, by showing a familiarity with the history of the conservative movement, saying that Reagan started in 1980 about 30 points behind Jimmy Carter and “just cheerfully went out and won the debate, won the nomination and won the general election.”

“I would suggest that a solid conservative who believes in economic growth through lower taxes and less regulation, who believes in an American energy program, who believes in a strong national defense, and who has the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment, may make the Washington establishment uncomfortable, but is also exactly the kind of bold, tough leader the American people want, they’re not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay,” Gingrich said. “ They’re sending somebody to Washington to change it, and that requires somebody who’s prepared to be controversial when necessary.”

Republicans have questioned Romney’s core beliefs, especially as they pertain to his conservatism, and the fact that he comes across as a slick salesman who does not believe a word that he says.

And while Gingrich’s conservatism has also been questioned, the former House Speaker has spent his career building up the Republican party and has significant conservative accomplishments. He is also passionate about his beliefs and expresses disdain for liberals while embracing the rhetoric of the right.

Romney and Gingrich are imperfect candidates, but Gingrich plays defense better than Romney plays offense, and that may end up putting Gingrich over the top in Florida.

With the State of the Union address tonight, this debate will quickly be forgotten, and the most important debate of the cycle may just be Thursday night’s showdown.