Republicans Prepare To Debate In Florida

Melissa Block talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about Thursday night's Republican debate in Jacksonville, Fla.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And as we mentioned, there's yet another debate tonight that takes place in Jacksonville, Florida. For more on that, we're joined by NPR's Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hello, Melissa.

BLOCK: Newt Gingrich came out of South Carolina surging. Now, though, he seems to have fallen behind in the polls in Florida, behind Mitt Romney. Do you expect to see an even more combative Newt Gingrich in the debate tonight?

LIASSON: Yes, I do. Gingrich has seen his second surge squelched by the Romney campaign and the Romney supporting superPAC. Just like they did in Iowa, they've used millions of dollars in negative ads to destroy a Gingrich surge. For some reason, Gingrich held back in the debate in Tampa on Monday, but tonight, I do expect we're going to see the old tough combative Newt. He gave a preview of some of the attacks he might level tonight when he made a blistering attack on Romney in Florida today.

NEWT GINGRICH: We're not going to beat Barack Obama with some guy who has Suisse bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs who had foreclosures in Florida and is himself a stockholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while he tries to think the rest of us are too stupid to put the dots together and understand what this is all about.

LIASSON: Newt Gingrich knows that Florida is his last chance. He needs to win here in order to slow Mitt Romney's momentum.

BLOCK: Now, after he lost in South Carolina, Mitt Romney in the first debate in Tampa on Monday directly engaged with Newt Gingrich in a way he really hadn't before. He'd been sort of taking a frontrunner's position taking on President Obama. Do you think that Mitt Romney again will continue that aggressive posture against Newt Gingrich to hold onto this lead that he has at least in the polls?

LIASSON: Yes. I think he will. It really worked for him on Monday night. He threw everything but the kitchen sink at Gingrich. He was much more aggressive than in the past. I think he realized he was in danger of losing after Gingrich's victory in South Carolina, but also, he's hired a new debate coach, Brett O'Donnell, who's worked with other Republican candidates, John McCain and George W. Bush, more recently, Michele Bachmann.

Also, he was the longtime debate coach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. So he is very effective and he clearly did a good job coaching Romney. The stakes are very high for Romney in Florida, but a loss here would be devastating, but not disqualifying. Unlike Gingrich, he can go on and on for the rest of the primaries.

BLOCK: We heard Don Gonyea mention that the audience has played a large role in these debates with their raucous applause, in some cases, or in the one debate on Monday where there was really no applause that was allowed by NBC. What do you make of that?

LIASSON: The audience has been a factor. They - when they have been cheering and jeering and clapping, it's usually been to Gingrich's advantage. On Monday, NBC asked them to be quiet and they complied. But tonight, CNN has made it very clear that that will not happen. They're going to rev up the crowd as they usually do.

BLOCK: There is debate, Mara, about whether a long drawn out primary race is a good thing or a bad thing for the eventual nominee. There was this question back when Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton were vying for the Democratic nomination. How do you think this primary season so far is affecting the candidate's standing with voters?

LIASSON: Well, what not positively so far. The model for a long campaign being helpful, as you said, was the 2008 Democratic fight. That did elevate Barack Obama, but Mitt Romney's positive ratings have dropped by 6 percent over the course of this primary, from about 30 percent to 24 percent in the Wall Street Journal poll. And in just a two week period, around the South Carolina primary, a Washington Post poll showed that Romney's favorability among independents dropped 17 points.

This is creating a lot of angst among Republicans. On - just on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page in the last week there have been two articles. One with the headline: the GOP deserves to lose, and the other one calling it: mutually assured destruction. So the primary battle has really bloodied these candidates instead of elevating them. And it's exposed a lot of deep divisions inside the Republican Party, a kind of class divide - the Tea Party versus the country club.

BLOCK: OK. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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