Newt Gingrich needs a dominant debate performance Thursday night to make up for a series of slips over the past week.
The Jacksonville debate will give him his largest audience to make the case that he should be the nominee. But, if he can’t reverse his recent slide in Florida’s polls before Tuesday’s election, his campaign could be in major jeopardy.
Gingrich’s prospects have risen and fallen on his showings in presidential debates, and Thursday is the last one scheduled for a month.
Coming into Florida after a resounding victory Saturday in South Carolina, Gingrich looked poised to build on his momentum. But a lackluster debate performance and a brush-back from popular Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other leading conservatives -- added to a curious call for moon colonies -- have capped Gingrich’s surge.
Polls conducted over the weekend, as Gingrich was winning South Carolina, showed him with a lead ranging from five to nine points in Florida. But Mitt Romney had recovered by Monday, the day of the debate, pulling even with Gingrich. Two polls conducted after Monday’s debate had Romney leading Gingrich by eight points.
Gingrich showed little of his trademark fire at Monday’s debate, seemingly focused on not losing his cool as his opponents went after his record as Speaker and his time working for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The debate was not a disaster for Gingrich; there were no flubs, no ‘gotcha’ moments. But coming after two masterful debates in South Carolina, where he torched the media to the partisan audience’s delight, the ban on audience cheering seemed to slow him down.
On Wednesday Gingrich was slapped down by Rubio, one of the most influential Republicans in the Florida. Rubio, who has remained neutral in the race, called a Spanish-language ad Gingrich was running against Romney “inaccurate” and “inflammatory.”
The remark led Gingrich to pull the ad off the air.
It was the second time that day that Rubio stepped up on Romney’s behalf. After Gingrich compared himself to Rubio and Romney to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), whom Rubio forced from the GOP after painting him as a moderate in their 2010 primary, Rubio pushed back hard.
“Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist,” he said in a statement. “Romney is a conservative. And he was one of the first national Republican leaders to endorse me. He came to Florida, campaigned hard for me, and made a real difference in my race.”
Gingrich also played into charges that he is an impulsive and undisciplined leader by calling for a moon base and flights to Mars by the end his prospective presidency.
‘By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American,” he said in a speech near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “By the end of 2020 we will have the first continuous propulsion system in space capable of getting to Mars in a remarkably short time because I’m sick of being told that we have to be timid and I’m sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old.”
Gingrich’s campaign was also forced to admit that they had not offered anyone besides his daughters to refute his ex-wife’s charges that he’d asked for an open marriage -- a claim Gingrich had made in his anti-media screed.
On top of that, he has faced a barrage of attacks from Romney backers and other establishment Republicans on his record as Speaker and his time on K Street afterwards.
Romney has rolled out Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to hit Gingrich on earmarks and corruption. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) warned that Gingrich can’t beat President Obama, that down-ticket Republicans would suffer from negative coattails and that as speaker Gingrich was “a one-man-band who rarely took advice.”
If Gingrich can keep control of himself and have some moments of righteous anger, as he did in South Carolina’s two debates, he could recover his standing in the state and rally against Romney. But if he remains too cool — or explodes — it could be hard for him to regain traction in Florida.
Romney needled Gingrich at Monday’s debate, and while Gingrich kept his cool then, he is known for his temper.
Pitney said how Gingrich reacts to Romney’s barbs could go a long way in determining which candidate wins Florida.
“Romney is going to try to get Newt angry. Newt is good when he’s pretending to be angry but he’s not good when he’s actually mad,” said Pitney. “Newt is a nuclear reactor. There’s a very fine difference between him producing an enormous amount of energy and having a total meltdown.”
Top Romney surrogates have also shadowed Gingrich’s events, seeking to get under his skin. Reps. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have shown up at Gingrich’s campaign stops. At one stop, a Gingrich staffer confronted Chaffetz.