Never before have debates in the primary/caucus season ever meant so much to the final outcome of the vote than this year. It seems that the public is infatuated with these endless verbal battles. And each contest seems to result in some degree of a shift in public opinion.
The newsiest polls generally suggest that the race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in Florida is a very tight one. There is little doubt that the Jacksonville, Fla., debate on CNN will likely be the last chance that one of these two men can emerge as a front-runner. The question: Who will take the night?
In my opinion, Gingrich was a bit off in the debate held in Tampa, Fla., earlier this week. Part of that was the result of the format, which did not allow for audience reaction and was dominated primarily by one moderator. But Gingrich also seemed to lack the fire he had displayed in prior debates. Romney was the aggressor, and as all who have ever debated in high school or college know, in an even match, the win goes to the aggressor.
What both candidates really lack is a display of passion about what they will do to implement a truly conservative agenda if elected president. Romney is all over Gingrich for his consulting business and what he describes as a failed time as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gingrich is now enticed by issues such as a Swiss bank account Romney once had. I'll admit, it does sound a little fishy, but the fact is the people of Florida are far more concerned about jobs, the value of houses and the drain the Obama health care program is having with regard to Medicare than where Mitt stuck his money.
Here is what, in my judgment, each candidate needs to do in order to bring home a victory in the debate. I'll start with Romney.
Mitt Romney would in many ways seem the dream candidate for the Republicans. He is handsome, smart and, of his own making, successful. Here is his real problem ... he is too well organized and controlled for his own good. The press knows that Romney won't banter with them, and in fact, he has ignored opportunities to meet with various editorial boards in Florida. That sends out a cold and distant vibe that is hard for the former governor of Massachusetts to shake. Romney needs to be the real Mitt Romney in the debate in Jacksonville. He should remind people that he became wealthy by his own hard work. And he should end the carping against Gingrich.
Gingrich needs to explain what he really accomplished as speaker of the House and tell the public the truth about why he resigned — it was a matter of ambitious politicians seeing an opportunity to rise in the Congress after Gingrich delivered another congressional win for his party, but one not big enough to suit them. Newt seems to think we all know his history, and that is simply not the case. Why does he not look at Romney and say: "You were governor of one state for four years. So was Jimmy Carter — and the experience gap was obvious once he was elected."
The real prize to be gained in Florida is the support of the many voters who identify with the tea party movement. They badly want to vote against the Republican establishment, but one of these two gentlemen must address their concerns. They want the scale of government reduced substantially. These same voters are sick of regulations and rules. And they want taxes reduced substantially.
No one cares what Romney did with his money ... but they might care if Gingrich would ever point out that he supports a tax rate for everyone that basically reflects what Romney paid, and that just a few debates earlier, Romney tossed out a much higher figure for the top tax rate for workers.
As for Romney, he should label Newt as a lifetime Washington insider. Whether it will stick is up to how deft Gingrich is in replying.
Finally, both men have established themselves as capable of taking on Barack Obama. And Jacksonville's debate will only make that more obvious.
Matt Towery is author of the book "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage. Follow him on Twitter @matttowery. To find out more about Matt Towery and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.