TAMPA, FLA. -- The most important moment of Monday night's presidential debate -- the first in the crucial state of Florida -- may have come before any candidate actually took the stage.
Prior to the camera rolling, NBC, the debate's host, told audience members to hold their applause. It was not an agreed-to rule among the candidates themselves. In fact, none of the campaigns said they had even requested it. But it created a type of no-thrills vibe that clearly benefited one over the other.
Mitt Romney, by most estimates, emerged better off Monday night. He peppered his answers with attacks on Newt Gingrich that his own top advisers freely called "aggressive." Most of the action came within the debate's first half-hour, when the focus was on the former speaker's role as a consultant/lobbyist for Freddie Mac, his propensity for bombast and his serial unreliability.
'I don't think we can possibly retake the White House if our nominee was a lobbyist for Freddie Mac," Romney declared at one point.
"The truth is that the members of his own team, his own congressional team, voted to displace him," he offered at another.
In past forums, the attacks would have elicited howls, cheers, or even boos -- disrupting the flow and giving Gingrich the type of energy and break in discussion to jump in. On Monday, Gingrich was left flailing.
"Now, wait a second. I mean, he just went on and on and on, making a whole series of allegations," Gingrich said about the barrage on his Freddie Mac history. "You just jumped a long way over here, friend," he added later.
After the fact, the campaigns spun the debate in typical fashion. But each adviser kept coming back to the same keystone: the prohibition on applause.
"Audiences, I think are there to watch," said Stuart Stevens, Romney's top adviser. "They are not there to be, sort of, an 11th man on the team. And look, we have done fantastically in these debates. The audiences have been very good for Mitt Romney. I just think, personally, that the audiences should not be, it is not the LSU-Alabama game."
"We are picking the president of the United States here," Stevens added. "It is not a game show."
If that didn't give off the indication that the Romney campaign felt it benefited from a dryer, quieter format, the reaction from the Gingrich camp certainly did.
"I also think the prohibition for no clapping was kind of un-American. What if you went to a baseball game and they were like, 'No cheering after a big play,'" asked Gingrich's top spokesman R.C. Hammond.
"I'm going to [file a complaint] right now," Hammond added, tongue in cheek. "R.C. is lodging a complaint."
For the campaigns to put such tremendous stock in the debate rules may seem like an effort in finding a superficial explanation for a candidate's performance. But the rest of Monday night's hour and 45-minute forum was, truly, a dull affair. The candidates found themselves agreeing on several substantive matters: whether it be a limited version of the Dream Act (a path to citizenship for military service) or English as an official language. Former Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul, the other two candidates, weren't called on until 10-plus minutes in. And, far more often than in the past, they were used as strategic allies by the two frontrunners
"I actually agree with Rick Santorum," Gingrich declared at one point. "I believe that the next president is going to face enormously difficult problems, some of which have been diagnosed by Dr. Paul. And the fact is we have tremendous institutional biases against doing the right thing and against getting things done."
There was no correction offered from the rest of the field that Gingrich, himself, could be described as a product of those demonized Washington, D.C., interest groups. It was another lost opportunity -- although this time to Gingrich's benefit -- and it underscored just how out-of-place Monday night's affair was, compared with previous forums.
There were bursts of polite applause, in response to sharp denunciations of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
But it was nothing like the earlier forums. For weeks, political observers have been marveling over the impact that these debates and their raucous audiences have had on the course of the Republican primary race.
"The debates have allowed every candidate regardless of their station ... to compete," said former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. "It has allowed them to get on the national stage and for at least 18 two-hour moments, to have a conversation that they otherwise would have been blocked out of." Taking the audience out of the equation, he added, gave Romney a big boost. "It is just the nature of how he approaches things. This debate was much more suited to his style of debate then it was to the other three."
But while Gingrich may, indeed, have been hampered by the rules of engagement, he didn't exactly help his own cause. The former speaker, who had been so sharp in going after the media in South Carolina's two debates, left tons of material unused when it came to responding to Romney.
When the former Massachusetts governor claimed that his private equity firm Bain didn't work with the government, left unmentioned was that one Bain company ended up needing a $44 million federal injection to help out an underfunded pension plan. When Romney attacked Gingrich for his Freddie ties, the former speaker didn't note that Romney himself had profited investments made in the mortgage giants (investments that spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom stressed were made blindly). When Romney talked about a three-step process to address the housing crisis -- pursue fraud, force banks to be more flexible, and improve the overall economy -- Gingrich failed to recall that his opponent once said the foreclosure crisis should run its course.
Those miscues couldn't be attributed to a quiet audience.