NBC moderator Brian Williams announced before Monday's Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Florida that the audience had been told to refrain from clapping. This lame rule resulted in a more boring and ponderous debate than usual. Leave it to a major network to deliver a deader debate than those on basic cable.
As expected, Mitt Romney came out swinging, but he landed few, if any, blows against Newt Gingrich. The attacks were too canned, desperate, and shorthandish to be effective. Romney appears to assume that primary voters are keenly aware of the details of the scandals to which he glancingly referred. They aren't, and might not care about them even if they did.
Newt, adopting an above-the-fray stance, calmly stepped back from the swings, dismissing Romney's comments as "trivial politics" and declaring that an evening of "chasing" Romney's "misinformation" didn't interest him. Gingrich was "presidential," purred NBC veteran Andrea Mitchell after the debate.
Once again, Romney came across as a bit of a bore and smarmy apple polisher, scolding Newt for this or that debatable transgression. Newt struck a larger pose, biting into the substance of conservative policy with much more relish than Romney. Does Romney even care about the issues that animate conservatives? It is still not clear. An aura of aimless ambition continues to swirl around him.
For all of his imperfections, Newt can speak the language of conservatism and the culture war convincingly. Romney simply can't. Asked to enumerate his contributions to the conservative movement, Romney came up with nothing, falling back on trite patter about his upstanding personal résumé. Newt's answer to the same question was detailed and credible, citing work all the way back to the Goldwater campaign.
Romney too often sounds like he is reading from stale press releases. It is painful to hear him repeat witticisms and lines that didn't sound very crisp, funny, or perceptive the first time he uttered them. In Monday's debate, he recycled his weak complaint about Obama playing too much golf at a time of recession -- "90 rounds," he snorted, as if Obama's inactivity rather than his leftist activism is somehow the source of America's problems -- and boasted again of his immature pride in having made Ted Kennedy take out a "mortgage" on his house during their Senate contest. Are conservatives supposed to pat Romney on the back for this?
Newt, at the very least, is not a lightweight in that mode. His anti-Obama, anti-left gibes have some sophistication and bite to them. Where Newt is spontaneous and curious, Romney looks wooden and narrow -- the businessman too focused on the bottom line to grapple with ideas or enjoy intellectual sparring.
This rigidity in Romney leaves voters cold, while the combative intellectual and defiant wit in Newt engages and excites audiences. Obviously Gingrich can be annoying too, but when he taps into his inner reactionary he is fun to watch. What will he say next? is not a question anyone ever asks about Mitt Romney.
Lacking Newt's fluidity, Romney sometimes struggles with his practiced lines and then resorts to odd ones when deprived of his teleprompter. He devised a few novel formulations at Monday's debate. He supports, for example, "self-deportations" and envisions Fidel Castro "returning to his maker" before setting off for another "land." The canny debater in Newt saw a chance to pounce on that latter line, correcting Romney that Castro isn't likely to experience any reunion with his maker before heading to hell.
Romney's wobbly attempt to wow Cuban Americans in Florida was, however, rewarded with some scattered applause, one of the few times during the evening the no-applause rule was breached. Had the rule been lifted for the whole debate, the applause for Romney's answers probably wouldn't have been any louder. Newt has called Romney a "good salesman with a weak product." That's overly generous. Romney has many commendable qualities but political salesmanship is not one of them. In this race, he resembles a weak salesman with a weak product, whose potential customers increasingly smell the desperation on him.