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Campaign 2012: Fireworks on agenda of tonight's GOP debate

January 26, 2012 |  1:00 pm

Newt Gingrich and wife in Florida

Monday night's Republican debate in Tampa left many observers wondering how such a hot campaign could produce such tepid TV. The four GOP candidates will meet Thursday evening in Jacksonville for one final talkfest prior to next week's Florida primary, and it's likely to be a much more entertaining session -- if not necessarily more enlightening.

One problem Monday was the lack of response from the audience at the University of South Florida -- moderator Brian Williams' request for decorum seemed to drain the fire out of the candidates as well. CNN, which is running Thursday's debate, says it won't repeat that mistake. But another issue was Williams' questions, which delved more into the candidates' foibles and squabbles than into big policy issues.

Clearly, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would rather focus on policy, where he can sound well-researched and insightful, than on his consulting work for Freddie Mac and his advocacy for Medicare Part D, where he often sounds like a Washington insider. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems to prefer talking about policy too -- it tends to show off his problem-solving mentality and experience as an executive, even as he tries to demonstrate his bona fides as a conservative.

But tracking polls show that Romney's stepped-up attacks on Gingrich's work as an "influence peddler" are working in Florida, even as Gingrich's momentum builds nationally. So it's a fair bet that Romney will attempt to steer Thursday's discussion back to Freddie Mac, Gingrich's "grandiose thoughts" (to borrow a phrase from former Sen. Rick Santorum) and the former Speaker's other supposed character flaws. Sparks will fly, knuckles will whiten, responses will grow testy.

Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) -- the candidates often overlooked by debate moderators -- may benefit from the mudslinging between Romney and Gingrich. Most Republicans seem to yearn for someone other than Romney to lead them, yet they're having as much trouble committing to Gingrich as they've had with any of the other anti-Mitts. So Santorum and Paul remain viable as long as the support for Gingrich wavers, as it has done this week in Florida.

Yet debating whether Gingrich was a "lobbyist" or whether Romney dodged taxes by parking part of his IRA in the Cayman Islands doesn't give Paul or Santorum a chance to differentiate themselves from the long line of anti-Mitts who have come and gone. Talking about how to boost American manufacturing (Santorum's pet issue) or the gold standard (a Paul favorite), on the other hand, would set them apart, for better or for worse.

So what one issue would you most like to see Wolf Blitzer and his CNN colleagues ask the candidates Thursday night? Take our poll below, leave a comment or do both!


GOP debate: Killer Mitt vs. President Newt

Mitt Romney doesn't want a tax break from Newt Gingrich

Does Romney really believe the things he says about Gingrich?

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich and wife Calista campaign in Florida. Credit: Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel

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