Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich square off in Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday night, in the last debate before Sunshine State Republicans make their presidential preferences known in next Tuesday's primary. The two candidates are running about neck and neck in Florida polls, while the other two candidates who will be on stage, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, have signaled that they've essentially written Florida off as a loss. Romney and Gingrich (with the help of super PACs) have spent millions in often-negative ads to soften each other up in Florida, and they've traded plenty of harsh words on the trail. The expectations are high for a big Romney-Gingrich showdown. Will they deliver? Here, six talking points:
1. This is a must-win debate for both Gingrich and Romney
Florida's primary is "political Thunderdome," say Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake in The Washington Post: "Two men enter Florida but only one man leaves as a viable presidential candidate." Romney has to win the state to avoid a devastating second consecutive loss, and Gingrich has to win to keep donations flowing into his cash-poor campaign. Raising the stakes, this may very well be Newt's last chance to strut his "demonstrated prowess in debates" until Arizona's Feb. 22 face-off. He'd better bring his A game.
2. Newt will play to the crowd
"Without a roaring crowd to encourage him, Gingrich took a heavy pounding from Romney" in Monday night's no-clapping-allowed NBC debate, says Sam Youngman at Reuters. Gingrich complained afterward, saying he'll "serve notice on future debates" that the audience needs free reign to react. Well, CNN says it will allow "respectful" hooting and cheering, and that could make all the difference for Gingrich, says Debra Rosenberg at NPR. Watch for plenty of his trademark media-bashing applause lines.
3. But Gingrich may actually tone down his rhetoric
If, like Monday night, Romney "paints Gingrich as failed leader-slash-Freddie Mac freeloader, chances are Newt will push back a little harder" in this debate, says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. But as he adjusts to being a frontrunner (again), "Gingrich is carefully jabbing at Romney, not throwing roundhouse punches." Newt's attacks and "hyperbolic words" helped kill his lead in December, so he'll be "trying to avoid that fate this time by drawing contrasts without the inflammatory language" — if he can help himself.
4. Romney's aggressiveness will correlate to his insecurity
Romney seems to have regained a slim lead in the most recent polls, says Tony Lee at Human Events, so the big question is, should he reprise his frontrunner strategy of staying above the fray, or "try to take out Gingrich with attacks that he has rolled out this past week"? Watch carefully, because "how Romney navigates this debate will tell us a lot about how his campaign feels about Florida." Well, the two frontrunners have been "pounding each other over personal and professional vulnerabilities" all week, says the AP's Brian Bakst. The sharp jabs are likely to continue as the Mitt-Newt fight goes onstage.
5. Paul and Santorum will focus on Gingrich
"Rick Santorum and Ron Paul may not even be in Florida on election night, but it is in both of their interests to gang up on Gingrich," says Human Event's Lee. Each man wants to be in a two-man race with Romney, and that means Romney has to survive and Gingrich must go. The obvious strategy for Santorum and Paul, then, is to "hurt Gingrich and not attack Romney as much."
6. The candidates will cozy up to Hispanics
"More than 450,000 Hispanics in Florida identify themselves as Republicans, making them a crucial demographic" in this crucial primary, says Andrew Beatty for AFP, a global news agency, and Romney and Gingrich have already "tried to out-do each other in toughness on Cuba," each vowing "to support a Cuban uprising should it occur while they are in the White House." The candidates have to walk a fine line here, says Human Event's Lee. "Romney and Gingrich both have tendencies to pander, and they must refrain from doing so." While they can't afford to "anger Hispanics," they also can't afford to turn off anti-illegal-immigration Republicans in states that haven't voted yet.