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Gary Younge
Florida GOP debate: Mitt Romney restores control

Debates, particularly by this stage, are a performance. There are few substantive questions the candidates have not been already been asked. There are few answers we haven't already heard.

If you watched the CNN Jacksonville debate with the sound down, you could have grasped the central dynamics of the race. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the two frontrunners, dominating the evening, often sparring angrily with each other. Gingrich jabbing the air, clutching the lectern and waiting for applause; Romney, taut and tense, forcing a smile and waiting for the next blow. To the right, Rick Santorum, animated and frustrated, waiting to get a word in edgewise. And Ron Paul, calm and unscripted, enjoying every minute in a world of his own.

Turn the sound up and you'd see that Gingrich, whose post Carolina surge seems to have plateaued, did not get the game-changer he needed. In contrast to South Carolina, the crowd were more discerning. He kept trying to throw them red meat; it turned out the Floridians preferred a more balanced diet.

His opponents were also wise to his weaknesses. Every time he went for Romney, Romney hit back – sometimes twice as hard. By the end, Gingrich came off not as resolute but whiney and mean-spirited. When he stood by his accusation that Romney was "the most anti-immigrant candidate on the stage", Romney called the charge "repulsive" and called on Gingrich, to the crowd's approval, to "apologize for … highly charged epithets".

When Gingrich got the crowd to boo the CNN moderator, Wolf Blitzer, it looked as though he'd pulled off the same trick that worked for him in South Carolina. Not so much running for the presidency, as against the media. Blitzer did not back down.

"But Mr Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, 'He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.'

"[Gingrich:] 'I didn't say that.'

"[Blitzer:] 'You did … if you a make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that.'"

When Gingrich tried to turn the crowd on Blitzer a second time, Romney stepped in to save him and thwart Gingrich.

"Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here," he said, forcing Gingrich on to the back foot again. When he said he wanted to see six or seven flights to the moon a day – more than the number of flights between Jacksonville and Washington DC – where the private sector might build a colony, Gingrich sounded like a crazy person.

Romney, whose performances have been underwhelming, had hired a new debate coach. It was money well spent. Predictable attacks about his wealth were parried; predictable attacks about the healthcare plan he introduced in Massachusetts, which provided a model for Obama's healthcare plan, were parsed.

When asked about his investments, he said they were in a blind trust. When asked about a campaign ad, he said he'd never seen it. By all accounts, including his own, Romney is a very wealthy man. But in this debate, the buck never seemed to stop with him. Whether any of these defences would pass muster in the real world was not the issue. Reality has rarely made an appearance in this Republican race so far. No reason for it to intrude now.

The best performance of the night, on balance, went to Santorum. He, alone, remained focussed and tried to rise above the pettiness to deliver his theocratic message with vigour. Unfortunately for him, he has no money, no organisation and, at the present rate, will be lucky to scrape a voting percentage in the double digits.

Ron Paul was by far the most entertaining. Challenging all the candidates to a 25-mile bike ride in the Texas sun, and never more than 100 words from saying something arcane about the economy, he engaged the audience by the simple virtue of refusing to engage seriously with the discussion that was taking place on stage.

The polls suggest a tight race in which Romney has the edge. Precious little happened Thursday night to change that.

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