The poll evidence is clear. Only candidates who are on the offense. score points with an angry, restive Republican electorate.
Romney went into the second Florida debate Thursday night in Jacksonville riding a wave of momentum that had been growing since he outperformed an uncharacteristically toned down Newt Gingrich during Monday night's NBC News debate in Tampa, and delivered what is widely perceived to be his best debate performance yet.
As the Associate Press's Chuck Babington put it, "Romney, forced to prove his resilience after a stinging loss in South Carolina, is showing why the so-called Republican establishment thinks he has the best discipline, organization and campaign smarts to challenge President Barack Obama this fall.”
How? By putting Newt Gingrich on the defensive and demonstrating an unprecedented willingness to attack the former Speaker directly.
Gone was the lackluster, “above the fray” debate strategy that lost him the South Carolina.
Throughout the two hour debate, Mr. Romney, who has been working with veteran GOP debate coach Brett O'Donnell remained confident and largely controlled -- turning attacks on his investments, wealth, and immigration policy back on the former Speaker.
When Mr. Gingrich accused Mr. Romney of having made money from investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he turned the question back on him asking “Have you checked your investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."
And Mr. Gingrich repeated an allegation in a campaign ad that Mr. Romney was the most "anti-immigrant" of the candidates on the stage, Mr. Romney pounced saying "that's absolutely inexcusable….it’s inexcusable. My father was born in Mexico. ...[The phrase] 'anti-immigrant' is repulsive. Don't use a term like that. ... [It] is simply the type of over-the-top rhetoric…” and demanded an apology for "highly charged epithets."
Meanwhile, Mr. Gingrich, whose stunning victory in South Carolina can be largely attributed to his combative debating style and uncanny ability to use liner attacks on the Washington establishment and media-bashing zingers to portray himself as an outsider anti-establishment crusader, seemed to have lost some of his magic.
Even his attempt to win points with the audience by castigating CNN's Wolf Blitzer as he did CNN's John King in South Carolina fell flat -- provoking attacks from both Blitzer who said 'If you make a serious accusation against Gov. Romney like that, you need to explain that,” and Romney who chimed in “wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”
After last night’s win Mr. Romney is once again the favorite to win Florida, but he hasn’t closed the deal yet.
Nowhere is there a majority of support for him, and he will need to come up with a better response to attacks on his tax returns, private equity dealings at Bain Capital, and investments than "I have a trustee that manages my blind trust."
As Dave Weigel put it, “Romney has that Kerry-esque skill of being unable to spin some nonsense about a complicated issue, and instead giving an inherently unrelatable explanation.”
Going forward, the only way Romney can position himself as a formable opponent to take on President Obama is if he can stay on the offense.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.