The Republican presidential candidates meet in Florida Monday night for their 18th debate, with a reinvigorated Newt Gingrich strutting forward and faltering frontrunner Mitt Romney hoping to regain his footing. Gingrich's come-from-behind South Carolina landslide has silenced talk of Romney's inevitability ahead of the Sunshine State's Jan. 31 primary, especially with Newt surging 8 points past Romney according to a new InsiderAdvantage poll. Could the NBC-hosted debate in Tampa further change the race? Here, four key factors to keep an eye on:
1. Can Newt dominate yet another debate?
Heading into South Carolina, Romney was the overwhelming favorite. Then Newt delivered two crushing debate performances and turned the tables. Last Thursday, says Carol Felsenthal at The Hill, "in a performance worthy of Broadway or Hollywood," Gingrich "mercilessly" pummeled moderator John King for asking a question about Newt's alleged request for an "open marriage." Newt maintained "an expression of righteous indignation as the crowd jeered and cheered." If Newt can again turn "legitimate questions against the questioner," he'll be in business.
2. Or will Romney rise to the occasion?
"The stakes couldn't be any higher" for Romney after the drubbing he just took, says MSNBC. Romney is already blasting Newt as a "failed leader" and a "disgrace," zeroing in on Gingrich's lucrative post-Congress career as a consultant. Similar attacks Monday night could strip Gingrich of the "anti-establishment credentials" that have fueled his surge, say Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times. But Mitt can't sound "too histrionic or too harsh," says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast, or he will forfeit the one quality — "that of a steady, self-assured businessman" — that made him the frontrunner in the first place.
3. Will the moderators grill Newt thoroughly?
The key question, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, is whether the moderators in Tampa (NBC's Brian Williams, the Tampa Bay Times' Adam Smith, and National Journal's Beth Reinhard) "will serve up more hanging curveballs over the plate for Newt Gingrich to bash out of the park [as John King did with the "open marriage" query], or whether they will actually scrutinize him with the same enthusiasm they have shown in grilling Mitt Romney." So far, Newt's escaped a lot of tough questions: "His party dumped him as speaker, so what does that say about his leadership?" to take one example. Or: "Is he realistic about the cost of national security?"
4. Will Santorum get back on the radar?
To stay in the race, says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air, Rick Santorum needs to keep hammering Gingrich over "his record as speaker, his long support of the same individual mandate at the core of both ObamaCare and RomneyCare, and his explicit support for RomneyCare in 2006." That's critical in Monday's debate, because if "he can't peel off enough conservatives for a significant boomlet in Florida," he's done.