A surging Newt Gingrich maintained his composure in the face of a renewed assault from Mitt Romney at the Republican presidential debate Monday night, aggressively defending Medicare in a state where the ethos of the Tea Party — a group that is demographically dominated by older white voters who tend to support public benefits for those who they believe have earned them — is especially powerful.
In a sprawling 90 minute discussion that touched on everything from the Terri Schiavo case to cane sugar subsidies to the threat posed by Cuba as a potential launching pad for terrorist attacks on the United States, Romney went hard after Gingrich on his tenure as Speaker, his ethics violations, and his role as a “lobbyist” for GOP boogieman Freddie Mac.
“The Speaker was given the opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994, and after four years he resigned in disgrace,” Romney said.
But instead of responding with venom, like he did during his triumphant march through South Carolina, Newt slowed down the tempo of his voice and smirked at Mitt’s honed, repeated attacks.
“I think Gingrich kept his cool,” said Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign before briefly leading Michele Bachmann’s abortive bid last year. “I don’t think Romney scored any points. When you freeze a campaign where it is, and Gingrich has the momentum, he benefits.”
Romney looked like he might have success getting under Gingrich’s skin when he brought up the former Speaker’s support for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, derided by many conservatives as an expansion of big government when the Bush Administration signed it into law in 2003.
“If you’re getting paid by health companies, if your entities are getting paid by health companies that could benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you’d like,” Romney said. “I call it influence-peddling.”
Gingrich, sensing an opening, turned to the crowd.
“I have always publicly favored a stronger Medicare program,” he roared in his most fiery moment of the evening. “I am proud of the fact that I publicly advocated Medicare Part D. It has saved lives. It’s run on a free enterprise model.” Florida has a disproportionately large population of seniors and Medicare is a frequent bludgeon in national campaigns there.
(Gingrich has a history of support for proposals that would change Medicare into a voucher program.)
Extensive surveys conducted by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol and two graduate student colleagues have convincingly demonstrated that Tea Party membership is composed in large part of elderly white people who oppose public benefits flowing to illegal immigrants but are in fact quite supportive of programs like Social Security and Medicare that they believe to help legitimately “deserving” Americans.
In what was perhaps the most surprising exchange of the night, Gingrich and anti-government crusader Rep. Ron Paul — who did not get along with Newt when they served in Congress together and has spent much of the campaign attacking the former Speaker — found common ground when they had a friendly discussion about pegging the dollar to price of gold. Paul’s libertarian dogma has provided much of the rhetorical foundation for the Tea Party’s economic message, and his book “End The Fed” takes some of the harshest criticisms of the U.S. central bank to their logical conclusion. Gingrich touted his support for something called a “Gold Commission,” which would “look at the whole concept of how do we get back to hard money.”
“There’s an area of the Tampa-bay area, the I-4 corridor, Hillsborough, Polk counties; those are folks sympathetic to a Federal Reserve message,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran Florida-based GOP consultant. “It’s a Tea Party hotbed. And obviously that’s an area where Paul might perform pretty strongly. He [Newt] might as well try to cherry pick some of that.”
Rollins went so far as to suggest Paul could theoretically throw his delegates behind Gingrich down the line.
“No animosity there, just a difference of opinion,” he said of Gingrich and Paul. “If for any reason, they could make a merger further along, he [Paul] could give his delegates potentially to Gingrich. Certainly, he’d more inclined I think to support Gingrich than he would be Romney.”
Gingrich did not blow away Republican viewers the way he did in the last debate before his victory in the South Carolina primary. Strong performances like that one have helped the former Speaker compensate for a campaign with far less money to spend on TV ads than Romney. But Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who recently donated $5 million to the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future, reportedly contributed another $5 million (via his wife) on Monday, injecting new life into what was until recently Newt’s longshot bid to claim the Republican nomination for a “bold Reagan conservative.”
Here’s a video of the debate’s highlights:
Follow Political Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny