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First Thoughts: Romney owned Gingrich, but problems linger

Romney had a strong night … Santorum may have won the debate … But that only helps Romney … All three Republicans are a net-negative in NBC/WSJ poll. … Romney’s image has been hurt by the primary … But the tide has turned in Florida, and Romney’s the front runner again there … Revenge of the establishment on Gingrich … Romney, Gingrich and  friends spending $22 million in Fla. … And welcome Caleb Fenne Murray!!!

*** Romney owned Gingrich…: If Mitt Romney wins the nomination, we'll look back and say the first hour of last night’s debate and say that was when he finally put it away. Romney dominated Newt Gingrich -- from the opening barbs over immigration to his effective response to Gingrich on Freddie/Fannie money (“Mr. Speaker have you checked your own investments?”) to squashing Gingrich’s attempt to co-opt the audience once again (“Wouldn’t it be nice if people wouldn’t make accusations somewhere else that they aren’t willing to make here?”). Romney was aggressive without being petulant. He finally looked comfortable sparring. He looked for the first time like he deserved the moniker “front runner” on stage. And it certainly helped that he had a new debate coach. Romney just wasn’t the same guy.

*** …But Santorum at least rented Romney: That said, the winner of the CONSERVATIVE debate was Rick Santorum. He ended up forcing Romney to defend health care in the same language President Obama uses. It’s amazing that with all the candidates chasing Romney, none has been able go box in Romney on health care and the mandate the way Santorum did last night. Romney still has trouble, and will likely continue to have trouble, explaining his logic on why government intervention on health care is OK at the state level but not the federal. Romney still didn’t fix his conservative problem; he has simply made the others look like worse alternatives. Santorum was also strong in his closing case to distinguish himself from the two front runners and scored points when he chided Gingrich and Romney for their attacks on each other -- for Gingrich’s work as a consultant and Romney’s private-sector work. Santorum defended both and went for the high ground: "Leave that alone and focus on the issues," he said. (Of course, part of why Santorum defended “consulting” is because he was one, too.) Santorum’s hoping for that classic rule of politics: A attacks B and C benefits. Of course, Romney camp is thrilled either way -- the better Santorum does, the better for Romney, because Santorum takes votes away from Gingrich. And, by the way, for the first time in a long time at a debate, Ron Paul seemed to be having fun. His politicians to the moon line got big laughs. Hey, “60 Minutes,” shouldn’t Paul be the frontrunner to replace Andy Rooney?

*** It wasn’t all good for Romney: He made at least three unforced errors – (1) He opened himself up on his “blind trust” Fannie and Freddie answer. He effectively responded to Gingrich noting Gingrich’s investment in Fannie and Freddie Mac, but he flubbed the details of his own Frannie/Freddie investment. He said it was in a “blind trust.” But it wasn’t, as the Boston Globe reported; (2) He didn’t know his campaign has a radio ad running statewide hitting Gingrich on his “language of the ghetto” comment – even though Romney signs off and approves the ad at the end in Spanish; and (3) He had this awkward spin on why he voted for Paul Tsongas: "I've never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot."   What might the late senator say – maybe: "Don't be a panderrr bear.” By the way, wasn’t President Bush on the primary ballot that day in Massachusetts too?

Republican presidential contenders are in a race against time to try to garner support before Tuesday's primary in the Sunshine state.  NBC's David Gregory reports on the latest on the fight for Florida.

*** NBC/WSJ poll… All three Republicans negative: The most important item in the NBC/WSJ poll was that all three Republican candidates are a net-negative when it comes to favorability. Romney was exposed in two ways in the poll – (1) he has a conservative problem staring him right in the face. That hasn’t changed. Any time base conservatives -- very conservative voters, Tea Partiers, Southerners, feels there’s a viable alternative to Romney, they rally around that person; we’ve seen this phenomenon for months. And (2) The primary has done damage to Romney. He cannot afford a long primary. If this thing goes to June, that would be very problematic. He’s already in a bad position. George W. Bush, John McCain, and Bob Dole were all in primary fights and ALL were a net-POSITIVE at this time in the election cycle. In the past 20 years in the poll, no one who went on to be the major party nominee of either party with a net-negative at this point – except John Kerry, and we all know how that turned out. Clearly, Romney is looking like he’s getting his momentum back, but he has fundamental problems for the general. The primary has done him no good. (Here’s our story on the poll, how the candidate match up with Obama, and the GOP brand problem.)

*** The tide turned in Florida: Speaking of that Romney momentum. A new Quinnipiac poll is out in Florida showing what seemed to be happening yesterday – that Romney’s retaken a sizable lead. He’s up 38%-29% over Gingrich. And the candidates’ rhetoric was evidence of the change yesterday. Gingrich leveled some of his harshest attacks on Romney on the trail yesterday, but Romney kept his focus on President Obama. Watch Gingrich carefully today, he could just unload. How he handles himself today is going to tell us a lot. By the way, Gingrich being unwilling to defend his Swiss Bank comments in the debate was a bad moment. Flashbacks to Tim Pawlenty’s missed opportunity on Romney.

*** Revenge of the Establishment: If Romney’s the nominee, we may look back this week as the week the establishment rescued him. Take a look at the cavalry that’s come to Romney’s rescue in Florida. John McCain is doing solo-town halls. Jason Chaffetz is following Gingrich around the state and picking fights with his staff. Bob Dole is writing letters attacking Gingrich. Marco Rubio, who is supposedly neutral, is playing referee in the state and constantly calling fouls on Newt… Bottom line: as many predicted post-South Carolina, if Newt actually looked like he was one primary win away from delivering a near-knockout blow to Romney, a significant group of folks would begin rallying to his defense. Or in this case, simply rallying to stop Gingrich.

*** Romney, Gingrich (and friends) spending the $22 million in Florida: The latest ad spending totals show Romney, Gingrich and Super PACs supporting them spending almost $22 million in Florida. Romney and Restore Our Future have outspent Gingrich and Winning Our Future about 4-to-1. The Super PACs, by themselves, have spent so far a combined $12 million, according to Republican ad tracker Smart Media Group Delta. The pro-Gingrich one, Winning Our Future, promises to spend another $2 million before Tuesday (to get up to that $6 million promised, but they haven’t booked buys YET). NBC’s Michael Isikoff takes a deep look at Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and principal funder of Winning Our Future. Here are the numbers:

- Pro-Romney: $15.7 million (Restore Our Future $8.8m; Romney: $6.9m)
- Pro-Gingrich: $3.9 million (Winning Our Future: $2.8m; Gingrich: $1.1m)

*** Welcome Caleb Fenne Murray! Caleb Fenne Murray, with a head of dark hair and hazel eyes, came into the world at 12:40 pm ET yesterday, weighing in at 8 pounds, 13 ounces and measuring 21 inches long. Caleb’s middle name -- Fenne (pronounced like Penny and derivative of Fennigan) -- is in honor of Sasha's late maternal grandfather. A long-time journalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fenne's love of journalism and politics inspired his daughter and grandchildren to always pursue the story and never be afraid to ask questions. Congratulations Mark and Sasha!!!

*** On the trail: All candidates (with the exception of Paul) blitz the Sunshine State. Santorum visits Miami … Romney rallies in Titusville, Orlando and Miami … Gingrich stumps in Miami and Delray Beach … Meanwhile, Paul is en route to Maine, campaigning in Bangor, Waterville and Lewiston, ahead of its caucus.

Countdown to Florida primary: 5 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 9 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 40 days
Countdown to Election Day: 285 days

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