Brian Williams moderated the Florida GOP debate with the skill and background knowledge required to keep the candidates on-point. With a moratorium on aural audience reaction, what emerged was a debate with more substance and less distraction than past performances from these candidates.
Newt Gingrich clearly enjoys his front-runner status and its advantages. While Mitt Romney went on the offensive against Gingrich, laying out his beliefs regarding the former Speaker's "influence peddling," Gingrich waved the former governor off and moved right along. He asserted his historical achievements, glossed over his controversies, and called Romney's debating style "sad."
Romney came out swinging in easily his most aggressive performance, subtly defusing his own controversies through his responses to the other candidates. He took Gingrich to task on his proposed elimination of capital gains taxes, saying under such a system, he would go untaxed. For Americans concerned Romney represents the "one percent" too strongly, he made a strong appeal by highlighting a willingness to pay taxes, prefacing his tax return release on Tuesday.
The most interesting moments came during Romney's sudden flip on the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that provides a merit-based route to citizenship for young people who were brought into the United States illegally as children. Romney previously opposed the act entirely, but seemed to shift positions as Gingrich refused to directly oppose it when asked his opinion by a moderator.
Noting the strong immigrant population in Florida, Gingrich toed a delicate line of providing compassionate help to immigration victims (in this case youth) while remaining tough on intentional law-breaking. Gingrich noted that he would like to see revisions in the DREAM Act to make it more appealing to conservatives and present what he believes to be fairer options.
Romney chimed in saying that he agreed with the former speaker's points, a direct contrast from his previous statements on the legislation. He attempted to re-articulate his immigration stance and stressed that his position did not include provisions to "round up" and deport undocumented individuals. Instead, a curious discussion arose about "self-deportation," transition periods, and re-entry. Romney's lack of clarity on the issue could prove a hurdle in the Florida primary.
Rep. Ron Paul's comments were well-received if nominal, with Paul further outlining his established positions on limited government and not ruling out a third-party run. Sen. Rick Santorum failed to pick up any steam with his time, but managed to emerge from the NBC debate relatively unscathed, despite a passing remark about global warming that could be perceived as conspiratorial.
The next GOP debate will be held at the University of Forth Florida and televised on CNN at 8 p.m. ET.