Florida debate: 5 things we learned

Republican candidates clash on immigration, Fannie and Freddie and space domination.

Last night the four remaining Republican candidates took part in the final debate ahead of the primary for the battleground state of Florida on 31 January. There was a degree of role reversal in the performances; frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney repeatedly pressed, ridiculed and challenged one another -- the former showing less fight and momentum than his polling figures have suggested in recent weeks.

The verdict has largely fallen on the side of Romney as victor; though the other two candidates, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, held the spotlight and audience applause in surprisingly large measure at this late stage in the race for nomination.

Here's the main five things, and corresponding clips, that we learnt from last night's crucial debate for the final four GOP candidates:

1) Romney's got bite

Early in the debate, Mitt Romney shamed rival Newt Gingrich over his claim the former Governor of Massachusetts was the "most anti-immigrant candidate." Romney called Gingrich's words "absolutely inexcusable" and "repulsive", while to his right the former House Speaker stood around uncomfortably. The crowd were behind Romney, and continued so whilst he stared Gingrich straight in the face, awaiting an apology.

 

2) Paul's king of the one-liner

He's going to hold on and keep them laughing until the bitter end. Conveying policy seemed not to be at the top of Ron Paul's agenda last night, but he certainly pleased the crowd.

 

The Texas congressman is not actually running in the Florida primary, but as in previous years, his safe base of supporters (and his health) will see him through the Presidential nominee race until he is finally forced out.

 

3) Gingrich shows signs of wearing down

After the immigration scuff, Romney continued to fire accusation of inadequecy at Gingrich, who responded to the attacks with weak anecdotes and complaints. The crowd were unimpressed.

 

Over in the Marbury blog, this was Ian Leslie take on Gingrich's performance:

[Gingrich was] tetchy, overly defensive and tired. He allowed Romney, whom he clearly despises, to get under his skin. He was too easily goaded into rhapsodising about space programs, which, even in Florida (home of the Space Coast), can make him seem a little detached from reality.

4) American's don't fear China "dominating space"

During the debate Gingrich was given the opportunity to expand on his proposals to build a moon colony -- for the benefit of the US economy -- were he to become president. In response, Romney relished saying he would fire Gingrich for such an idea, were he his boss, and swiftly moved on to attacking his rival's record of making state-specific pledges, vacuously "promising billions and billions of dollars to make people happy".

 

5) Santorum is hardly running, but he probably won

He is coming last in the polls and the pockets of his campaign may be empty, but Rick Santorum made an impressive performance on stage. He emerged the most successful candidate in holding Romney to account on policy; in many ways playing the part that Gingrich failed to claim. The former Senator for Pennsylvania spoke passionately "about freedom" in an attack on Romney's health care plan. Romney called him "angry", but the crowd -- and Republican voters watching at home -- most likely share Santorum's frustration.

 

Politico praised the performance:

. . . It's safe to say that on overall points, Santorum won the debate, although it was Romney who had the standout moment.

Santorum is barely making a play in Florida, and he is leaving the state this weekend to go home and handle his taxes -- essentially ceding the stage to Romney and Gingrich. But he has been presenting himself in this race as a more "consistent" conservative alternative to Gingrich, and someone who can match Romney on leadership.

Tuesday's closed primary will see one nominee gaining the full 50 Florida delegates. In the final debate, Romney's success at pressing his close rival Gingrich on issues that are contentious for them both -- transparency of personal wealth and immgration -- appears to have knocked him back into the lead.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.