01/25/2012 12:48 EST | Updated 03/25/2012 05:12 EDT

The Endless GOP Road Show


Unless it's CNN's John King questioning Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife's accusation that he wanted an "open marriage," it's often difficult to figure out who wins a political debate.

And so it is with the seemingly endless road-show debates by the four contenders to be the Republican choice for president next November. Debate winners are often in the partisan eyes of those who back one candidate over the others.

When Gingrich exploded during the South Carolina debate at King's question about him dumping two wives and marrying his mistresses, the electorate approved of Gingrich calling the media "despicable, disruptive, vicious, negative, . . . and false."

The debate vaulted Gingrich to defeat Mitt Romney, whose performance was hesitant, rambling, lackluster, and unduly secretive about his tax returns.

The Florida debate at Tampa's South Florida University this week was different.

Gingrich entered as the leader, but the rules established by NBC's Brian Williams (a good moderator) banned applause from the audience. Without supporting cheers, Gingrich seemed to flounder, while Romney was more aggressive and persuasive.

Still, supporters of each candidate seemed to think their guy won.

Maybe, but Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are supporting actors for the two principals -- Romney with lots of money to spend, Gingrich with more chutzpah.

Arguably, the most telling moment for Romney was when Gingrich insisted he worked for the Freddie Mac mortgage corporation not as a "lobbyist," but as a "historian."

Romney shot back that Gingrich being paid $1.6 million by Freddie Mac and trying to persuade Republican politicians to support Freddie Mac, was indistinguishable from "influence peddling."

Gingrich said the $1.6 million went to his company and that he personally only got $35,000. No matter. It was Gingrich's blood being shed.

Romney also earned points when he hammered away at Gingrich being a creature of Washington, who has never met a payroll, and is part of the problem afflicting the economy and not part of the solution.

Small businesses and wealth-creating jobs are America's cures, he said, and pointed to his own record of creating jobs while creating his own wealth -- all away from the debilitating influence of Washington.

If Gingrich is a pawn of Washington's K Street, surely Romney owed allegiance to Wall Street.

Of course Romney did his own share of stumbling. On the question of illegal immigration he thought illegals should leave the country by something he called "self-deportation," whatever that is.

Gingrich probably did himself damage by arguing on behalf of subversion and even aggression in Cuba when Castro dies, and of possible military action if Iran blockades of the Straits of Hormuz, and even aggression to depose Bashar Assad in Syria.

Ron Paul felt more wars were not what America needed at the moment, despite Santorum's hawkish attitude towards Cuba -- perhaps because of Florida's large Cuban population.

When Gingrich said he quit as Speaker, Romney said he had to "resign in disgrace." Ron Paul chipped in that Gingrich been convicted of an "ethics violation" and was fined $300,000, and that his own party turned against him.

At the time (1998), Gingrich referred to his GOP colleagues as "cannibals."

Anyway, the next debate is tomorrow, pending the primary vote on Saturday. If Romney didn't gain lustre on Monday, Gingrich certainly lost some -- even though he now leads Romney in Florida polls by an average of seven per cent.