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Romney Packed Debate Hall With Supporters, Gingrich Aide Says

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Newt Gingrich's campaign staff claims that Mitt Romney filled the debate hall in Jacksonville with his supporters on Thursday night.
Newt Gingrich's campaign staff claims that Mitt Romney filled the debate hall in Jacksonville with his supporters on Thursday night.

WASHINGTON -- Members of Newt Gingrich's campaign accused Mitt Romney's campaign of packing the audience for the Republican presidential candidate debate on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla., with its own supporters to ensure that the dynamics would be favorable to Romney.

"They definitely packed the room," Kevin Kellems, one of Gingrich's senior advisers, told The Huffington Post early Friday morning. "The problem for them is their candidate, at several junctures, couldn't remember what he had said before on an issue or what the fundamental truth is on a given topic. TV viewers tend to notice and remember things like that."

A more junior member of the Gingrich campaign said in an email that it was "obvious" that the Romney campaign had worked to make sure the audience was overly favorable toward the former Massachusetts governor.

"I was getting calls and emails from all over saying this," the junior aide said. "Just average people saying, 'Wait a minute.'"

The campaign staffer noted that the Florida Republican Party had "picked 900 plus seats."

Florida Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes told HuffPost in a phone interview late Thursday that the state party controlled who got roughly 900 of the 1,200 tickets issued to the debate. But he took issue with charges that the crowd was tilted toward any one candidate.

"The vast majority of [the tickets] went to rank and file. We did a very thorough job of getting them to the rank and file, vetting them to make sure they went to registered Republicans and then making sure they went out to people that were not knowingly affiliated" with any of the candidates, Hughes said.

"We worked very hard to ensure that the room was rank-and-file folks who represent the electorate that these guys are trying to speak to," Hughes said.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was asked after the debate if the campaign had worked to get supporters in the crowd. Fehrnstrom said he had invited his parents, who live in Jacksonville, but no one else.

"The campaign was given an allotment of tickets," Fehrnstrom said. "I don't know how many tickets they received. I assume it's the same as every other campaign."

After the debate ended, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, wrote on Twitter: "Hidden story of this debate: Why was audience more pro-Mitt & less pro-Newt than others? JAX was pro-Mitt '08, but must be more to it."

Raucous debate crowds in South Carolina, who roared their approval for Gingrich last week on two separate evenings, helped the former House speaker score a huge win in the Palmetto State on Saturday. Gingrich stormed into Florida with momentum on his side.

But on Monday night, instructions by NBC's Brian Williams to a debate crowd in Tampa, Fla., that the audience should withhold applause until the end of the event resulted in a different dynamic. Romney was on the attack against Gingrich, and Gingrich could not summon the same energy that he had in South Carolina with the help of supportive audiences.

After the Monday debate, Gingrich complained about Williams' instructions.

"We're going to serve notice on future debates," Gingrich said. "We're just not going to allow that to happen. That’s wrong. The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to."

On Thursday night in Jacksonville, Romney again went on offense against Gingrich from the very beginning of the two-hour debate and was buoyed by a supportive audience.

It was a crucial debate for both Gingrich and Romney. Gingrich's lead in the polls has disappeared quickly over the past day or two, and it was widely thought that he needed another breakout performance to regain an edge. Most of the commentary after the debate, even from supporters, judged Gingrich's performance as flat, finding that he did not have a strong night.

"Live by the debate, die by the debate," Erick Erickson, founder of conservative blog RedState.com, wrote on Twitter. "Romney got the better of Gingrich and Gingrich is probably locked out of a FL win. Will be tough."

And though the Romney campaign denied any effort to fill the room with supporters, Romney told everyone at a rally in Jacksonville on Thursday morning to come to the debate.

"If you all can get there, we'd love to see you there, cheering and being part of that," Romney said.

A man in the crowd yelled out that there were no tickets.

"No tickets, huh?" Romney said. "Just storm in."

Amanda Terkel and Elise Foley contributed reporting from Jacksonville.

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