Mitt Romney has a fight on his hands for the Republican nomination for president, and he started punching back in Monday night's nationally televised debate in Tampa. It was a more aggressive Romney who consistently portrayed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a Washington insider with too much baggage to be elected. The normally pugnacious Gingrich spent more time playing defense, signaling the next seven days before the Florida primary will focus more on character than on policy.
The debate at the University of South Florida, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100, was divided into several segments — but there were no knockouts. In the first segment, Romney smartly contrasted the ethics charges against Gingrich during his tenure as House speaker in the 1990s with his own successful leadership of the Salt Lake City Olympics. He also eroded Gingrich's efforts to portray himself as the anti-establishment candidate by hammering away at the former speaker's lucrative Washington consulting career. In Romney's best shot, he accurately noted that historians — Gingrich's self-described role in working with mortgage giant Freddie Mac — aren't paid $25,000 a month for years.
Romney continued to struggle with questions about his wealth and his tax returns, which he is to release today. He already has acknowledged his effective tax rate was about 15 percent, far less than the top ordinary income tax rate of 35 percent. "I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,'' Romney said. That hardly sounds like everyman, coming from a multimillionaire.
In the other segments, neither Gingrich nor Romney demonstrated a solid grasp of issues affecting Floridians. They agreed that the pro-consumer Dodd-Frank financial regulations should be repealed and incorrectly blamed the law on stifling the recovery of the housing market. That's not what ails the Florida housing market, which shows signs of recovering. And while it's popular to complain about regulation, it was too little regulation that helped trigger the 2008 economic collapse, not too much.
Similarly, both Gingrich and Romney misplayed a question on Cuba in a Tampa Bay community that has embraced new charter flights from Tampa International Airport to the island. Their tough talk on Cuba and the Castro regime was put into proper perspective by Ron Paul, who favors conversation over isolationism and dryly noted, "It's not 1962 anymore.''
In fact, all of the tough talk on immigration and forcing undocumented immigrants to return to their home countries to apply for U.S. citizenship sounded out of touch in multicultural Florida, where more than 22 percent of the population is Hispanic. Try enforcing that unrealistic policy and finding workers to harvest crops in Florida's fields, where more than half of the field workers are estimated to be here illegally.
Expect more trash talking than policy discussions this week. Republicans gambling on Gingrich are backing an ethically challenged candidate suddenly flush with more casino money. First billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson contributed $5 million to a so-called super PAC that aired ads in South Carolina blasting Romney's work at Bain Capital, the private equity firm. Now Aldeson's wife is giving the political action committee, Winning Our Future, another $5 million so Gingrich can play in Florida. It seems casino interests trying to buy the Florida Legislature to get permission to build mega-casinos in the state are trying to buy something even bigger.