Tonight’s debate in Jacksonville was — as unbelievable as it seems — the last one scheduled for nearly a month. But, more significantly, it was the last debate before this Tuesday’s Florida primary, the contest that will decide whether Newt Gingrich makes this a lasting two-man race, or whether Mitt Romney reclaims the mantle of inevitability. And since this primary race has fluctuated wildly based on debates, Gingrich, losing steam in the polls over the last couple of days, really needed a strong showing. Instead, he had one of his worst performances in recent memory. (And this time, he can’t blame it on the audience, which was allowed to cheer to its heart’s content, and did.) Romney, with the help of a new debate coach, had one of his better performances. In exchanges on immigration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and space exploration — where Gingrich’s ideas about moon colonies and even moon statehood just made him sound out of touch with reality— Romney had the upper hand. In fact, you could make the case that Gingrich was worse than everyone on stage. Rick Santorum looked good just from staying out of all the petty squabbling. Ron Paul was his usual self but with an added dose of endearing humor. But neither of those guys really matter in Florida. It’s a race between Gingrich and Romney, and after tonight, Romney will be the odds-on favorite to win.
Number of Candidates Who Mouthed the Words to the National Anthem - Two (Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney)
Number of Candidates Who Think America Is a Mediocre Country, at Best – Two (Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul)
Number of Times the Name Reagan Was Mentioned: 18 (Gingrich: Six; Santorum: Six; Romney: Five; Paul: One)
Number of Times the Name Marco Rubio Was Mentioned: Five (Romney: Three; Gingrich: One; Santorum: One)
Number of Times the Name Bush Was Mentioned: Once (a reference to George H.W. Bush)
Number of Times a Theoretical Illegal Immigrant Grandmother Was Mentioned: Eleven.
Worst Knowledge of One’s Own Campaign: “I doubt that’s my ad, but we’ll take a look and find out.” — Mitt Romney on a Spanish language radio ad his campaign is running Florida.
Line Most Appropriate for a Discussion Between Band Members: “I think, instead, we should have had a whistle-blower and not horn-tooter.” — Mitt Romney talking about something.
Best “You Got Served” Moment: Romney takes Gingrich’s Fannie/Freddie attack … and throws it right back.
Best “Well Done, Brother” Nod: Gingrich’s nod at the end of this Santorum tirade:
Briefest Journey on the High Road: Asked about Romney’s taxes, Gingrich managed to stay above it all for about 40 seconds:
Most Surprising Challenge: Asked about his health by Wolf Blitzer, 76-year-old Ron Paul challenged the other candidates to a 25-mile bike race “in the heat of Texas.”
Most Retro (Out of Context) Campaign Promise: “I’d like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there.” — Newt Gingrich, talking about a moon base.
Number of Minutes Spent On the Super Important Topics of Moon Bases and Moon Statehood: Seven and a half. Here they are:
Top Three Ron Paul Jokes:
3. “I don’t think they see a Jihadist under the bed every night.” — Ron Paul, on the American people.
2. “Well, I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.” — Ron Paul on a moon base.
1. “Well, I’d ask him what he called about.” — Ron Paul, asked by Wolf Blitzer, “Imagine you’re in the Oval Office, you speak to Raul Castro. What would you say to him?”
Most Random Ethnic Stereotype: “The Hispanic community is especially attuned to the foreign policy of non-intervention. They – they are more opposed to war than other communities.” — Ron Paul.
Worst Question: “Why would your wife make the best first lady?” — Wolf Blitzer.
Worst Husband: “She’s not necessarily in any way better.” — Newt Gingrich, on Callista Gingrich, in his answer to the dumb First Lady question.
Most Oft-Repeated Lie About President Obama: “This president went before the United Nations and castigated Israel for building settlements. He said nothing about thousands of rockets being rained in on Israel from the Gaza Strip.” — Mitt Romney.
“Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.” — President Obama, at the United Nations.
Most Gingrichian Phrase: “A secular elite and the academic news media.”
Most Ridiculous Thing Anyone Said About President Obama: Gingrich strongly implied that Obama prefers Saul Alinsky to the Declaration of Independence.
Nicest Thing Anyone Said About President Obama: Romney admitted that not all of Obama’s ideas are terrible. “We know what it takes to put people back to work,” Romney said. “[Obama] said some of those things last night – lowering corporate taxes, lowering regulations, opening up all of the above in energy, cracking down on China.” However, “He just doesn’t do any of those things.”