"Mitt Romney may not drink," says John Dickerson at Slate, "but he was loaded" at Thursday night's CNN-hosted debate in Jacksonville, Fla. In the last debate before Floridians go to the polls next Tuesday, Romney "went after Newt Gingrich immediately and relentlessly," and many of his punches landed. "The newly-confident Romney" scored major points, says Maggie Haberman at Politico, when he "slammed Gingrich hard" for branding Mitt as "anti-immigrant." Romney "called the charge 'repulsive' and even demanded an apology." The crowd "loved it." Gingrich, meanwhile, "turned in an oddly passive debate performance that left his supporters scratching their heads," say Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns at Politico. Newt "whiffed, fouled off, or didn't even swing at one easy pitch after another." Will Romney's well-received performance, and Gingrich's widely panned one, decide the crucial Florida primary in Romney's favor?
It's over for Gingrich: Newt just "had his head handed to him" by Romney, says John Cassidy at The New Yorker. With his poll numbers stalling, Gingrich desperately needed a good debate. Instead, "his performance was so dismal it demands explanation." My best guess is that, with the GOP establishment savaging him all week, Newt "knew he was finished even before he stepped on the stage." He certainly was toast by the time he stepped off.
"Alas, poor Newt! He looks to be finished"
Newt did well enough: "Thursday night's debate didn't settle anything," says Ed Rogers at The Washington Post. Romney was "better prepared than ever," and he had a good night. But Gingrich was good, too. Sure, with Newt's talk of moon colonies and other grandiose ideas, "voters could be thinking he might be too big to be president." But that's the dynamic of the GOP's two-man race: "Newt is big and Romney is solid." Thursday's debate, in which neither candidate "collapsed, but no one triumphed," didn't change that.
"At GOP debate, solid Romney vs. big Gingrich"
The real winner was Rick Santorum: It was clearly a better night for Romney than for Gingrich, but "it's safe to say that on overall points, Santorum won the debate," says Maggie Haberman at Politico. "It was Santorum who brought the toughest attack against Romney over Massachusetts health care," and Santorum who "successfully tethered Gingrich to Romney" on health care mandates. The former Pennsylvania senator has all but written Florida off as a loss, but if "voters are unhappy with either of the top tier choices, Santorum could look like a palatable option."
"Florida GOP debate: 7 takeaways"