There was nothing sunny about the last debate in the Sunshine State. The Final Four know that you don't win by being nice and they hardly pretended. Gingrich slammed Romney for investments his blind trust made in mutual funds that bought shares of Fannie and Freddie (convoluted enough for you?). Romney hit back that Gingrich owned the same portfolio. After Newt chastised moderator Wolf Blitzer for divisive questions, he then took the bait to get one more slice at Mitt. The audience booed and pounded and roared -- as did those of us watching around the country.
I have likened these debates to sporting events in the past. Really, they are like gladiatorial bouts…and those of us watching cheer at the sight of blood. So, the gladiators deliver.
For a moment, Rick Santorum changed the tone, complimenting both of the front-runners -- his "Wouldn't I make a swell VP" moment. With his nonagenarian mother in attendance, he might have come across as the likable candidate. Not easy for a man who has made so much of his career about disliking people: gays, liberals, New Yorkers.
Ron Paul might have been in the running for Most Likable -- especially when he offered to go on a 25-mile bike ride in lieu of releasing his medical records -- if he hadn't stumbled so badly over what to do about people with no health insurance. He didn't say "Let them die," but he wasn't sure what else to say.
So the last meet-up before the next match basically confirmed what we already know: the Republicans aren't putting on a friendly face.
A far cry from the genial "Morning in America" Reagan persona, and even the affable compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush. Both men clearly had their ruthless sides, but they were smart enough to tuck them away. And while President Obama has a streak of hard-edged political gamesmanship -- documented by Ryan Lizza in this week's New Yorker -- he's great at smiling for the camera.
Would Mitt be able to stop smirking long enough to pull off a birthday wish for Betty White ?
Do we believe Newt could stop scowling and toss off a few riffs live at the Apollo?
One of Obama's worst moments in the 2008 primary was when he was asked whether Hillary Clinton was likable, and he awkwardly hedged. Maybe his point is that likability isn't the most important quality in a President, or that it didn't matter if he liked her or not. But for a moment it made him less likable.
He got his grin back, and has managed to keep that side of him alive, even during a grueling campaign and a brutal presidency. Neither Newt or Mitt have it. They may need to take the gloves off and put the brass knuckles on to round up primary delegates, but when it comes time to winning over America, you need to have a winning personality.
Maybe they can manage a trip to the Magic Kingdom in their final Florida days to revive their sense of joy. Or they need to spend a day with Mama Santorum. Because Rick's the guy on the stage who is having the most fun.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."
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