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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era