JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Newt Gingrich pulled out all his tricks at Thursday night's GOP presidential debate in Jacksonville: attack the moderator, attack Mitt Romney, let other candidates get twisted up in their own words and feed on the energy of the audience. In South Carolina, they propelled him to victory. This time, they weren't enough.
Gingrich, more than any other candidate, has benefited from his debate performances. His fiery, aggressive attacks appealed to hungry conservatives, and he frequently tells audiences he is the only candidate who could win a debate against President Obama. On Thursday, he didn't do that, and his campaign notably played down the debate's importance afterward.
CNN host and debate moderator Wolf Blitzer stole a chance for Gingrich to get a big head start. Blitzer allowed a member of the audience to ask a question about immigration and gave Rick Santorum, whose momentum from the Iowa caucuses has largely disappeared, the first chance to answer.
In South Carolina, Gingrich received one of his biggest boosts when he went after CNN's John King, the debate moderator. King led the questioning by asking Gingrich about claims that he once asked his wife for an "open marriage." Gingrich responded by attacking King and the news media, earning a standing ovation from the audience.
Gingrich's other South Carolina boost came in an earlier debate, when he went after moderator Juan Williams for questioning his statement that President Obama was a "food stamp president."
Blitzer, however, was ready on Thursday. He reminded Gingrich that he earlier said he was satisfied with the level of transparency from Romney on his taxes, but has since attacked the former Massachusetts governor for living in "worlds of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts."
"Wolf, you and I have a great relationship -- goes back a long way," said Gingrich, adding, "This is a nonsense question. Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we're going to talk about issues?"
When Blitzer replied that he was simply asking about a comment he made during a TV interview, Gingrich shot back, "I'm perfectly happy to say that in a TV interview. This is a national debate."
While there was some booing of Blitzer, the biggest applause came for Romney, who took Blitzer's side: "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend?"
Gingrich even received some boos, for his claim that he balanced the budget.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who recently endorsed Gingrich, admitted that the candidate wasn't able to deliver the punches he did in South Carolina.
"I think it's more of a question of the opportunities that were presented," said Thompson. "If someone gives you an opportunity to bear down on them, you do it. But you can't fake something like that and get away with it."
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond downplayed the importance of the debates to the Florida primary.
"I think the dynamic's completely changed," Hammond said, referring to the difference between South Carolina and Florida. "I think if you look at the outside super PAC activity, I wouldn't want those ads up against me. That's pretty bad. They're reinforcing what everyone fears about Mitt Romney -- he's inconsistent, he will change, he will lie to you. The truth is sometimes an unfamiliar fact to him."
Attacks on Romney weren't easy on Thursday either, as he continued his aggressive stance of recent days.
Romney's backers were noticeably upbeat talking with reporters after the forum, saying they thought it was perhaps his best debate.
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Gingrich looked "deflated" on Thursday night and called him "erratic" and "unhinged." Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Romney "kicked butt."
"I think Newt lost his mojo a little tonight. He just didn't seem to have the get-up-and-go that he had in previous debates," Pawlenty said.
When asked whether this was Romney's strongest debate, Pawlenty replied, "I think he had an incredibly strong debate. He's had a lot of great debates throughout this campaign. I think this was the strongest of the series."
During the debate, Gingrich stood by a claim in one of his ads that Romney is the most "anti-immigrant" GOP candidate.
"Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant," Romney indignantly replied. "My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that."
He reminded the audience that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently denounced Gingrich's ad that called Romney "anti-immigrant."
"And I'm glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it," Romney said. "I'm glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets."
Romney's performance was far from flawless. He had his own slip-up on this topic later, when he was asked about his ad saying that Gingrich once said Spanish was "the language of the ghetto."
"I doubt that's my ad, but we'll take a look and find out," replied Romney. "There are a bunch of ads out there that are being organized by other people."
It actually is Romney's ad, as Blitzer later noted. In fact, at the end of the ad, Romney says in Spanish, "I'm Mitt Romney. I'm running for president, and I approve this message."
When asked whether Romney actually does approve his campaign ads, Fehrnstrom chalked the moment up to memory loss due to the large volume of ads.
"We've had, I think about 85 campaign videos and TV ads and radio ads that have been up and running in different states. He doesn't recall all of them. That particular ad is a radio ad. It was rated, by the way, by Politifact, as 'mostly true,'" Fehrnstrom said.
The debate capped a week of increasingly harsh attacks on Gingrich from some conservative establishment figures. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Gingrich is "erratic, undisciplined." Former Sen. Bob Dole called him "a one-man band who rarely took advice."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece said that Fred Thompson had endorsed Mitt Romney, when he in fact endorsed Newt Gingrich. The error has been corrected.
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