JACKSONVILLE, Fla.--Even Newt Gingrich's top aides agree: Thursday's debate wasn't their boss's hottest night.
Mitt Romney showed up armed with the safety turned off. When the other candidates tried to return fire, Romney ducked, dodged and fired right back.
Tensions were already high between Romney and Gingrich before they entered the debate hall. The night was a culmination of a 48-hour media blitz against the former House Speaker on the Florida airwaves. Romney and his surrogates pounded Gingrich all week: Bob Dole released a scathing statement against him; former Reagan aides questioned his commitment to conservatism; and others derided his discussions of building a colony on the moon before the end of his second term.
After the debate, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond huddled with reporters who were waiting to fly with the candidate 350 miles south to Miami. "Right now he's taking every axe, arrow, rock, pin, piece of poison, something you can choke a child on, and throwing it at us," Hammond said of Romney.
A few feet away, a photographer for a magazine played a harmonica. As Hammond spun the debate, another reporter belched.
"In 2008, this is where Romney's ticket ended," Hammond went on to say. "And he knows that if he does not make it out with a big margin out of Florida, then his campaign is over."
A reporter tried to interject with a question.
"I'm not done!" Hammond shouted. "Every single time he steps out on the podium to forward that positive vision, when you have an agitating force in the power of Mitt Romney next to you, who is going out and misleading and abusing the truth in the way that he does, you end up getting in a bit of a nit-nat fight every once and a while."
"You both are stretching the truth," a reporter shot back.
Hammond ignored her. The photographer continued to play his harmonica.
"Romney knows that if he doesn't win Florida really big, then his ticket's over," Hammond said.
Another reporter asked about Gingrich's weak debate performance.
"Nineteen debates, I'd call this one a push," Hammond said.
"A push?" a reporter asked.
"What's a push mean?" another said.
"A push," Hammond said. "A draw."
"You had a push with who?"
"So, in blackjack, when you tie the dealer, when you don't get the break either way, it's a push," he said. "So that's what I'm calling tonight's debate."
Sheldon Adelson would approve.
Correction, Jan. 27, 12:03 p.m.: This story has been updated to indicate that the harmonica player was a photographer, not a writer.
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