I watched the beginning of the NBC debate last night but had to wait until today to actually watch/listen to the whole thing. The talking heads seem to be talking mostly about how Newt didn't do as well as in previous debates because NBC made the audience be silent. While it is true that he didn't have any rabble rousing memorable moments like in last week's Fox News debate, I would argue that he will benefit the most from this debate for the following reasons:
1. Santorum was a non-entity. Because NBC was trying to get Newt and Romney to go at it, both Santorum and Paul seemed to barely get a word in edgewise. Santorum is already having to fight the trend of big name conservatives breaking for Newt in recent days (Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, etc.) and this debate is only going to reinforce the impression that a vote for Santorum is at best a wasted vote and at worst a vote for Romney. And according to the latest PPP poll, Santorum voters prefer Newt to Romney but a 2-1 margin. Santorum is currently polling at 13% in Florida, I would expect at least a few percent to go to Newt in the coming days.
2. Mitt Romney hurt himself by getting his own finger nails dirty. The reason Mitt's attack strategy in Iowa worked was because he used surrogates to go on the attack, keeping himself looking squeaky clean. "Oh gosh, you know I have no control over all those Super PAC ad's" helped deflect criticism of his campaign (despite the fact that the Super PAC's were run by former campaign staffers of his and funded by his friends), while at the same time Newt looked like an "attack muffin" because he would fight back himself. Well Mitt looks like he has forgotten this strategy and tried last night to go on the attack. I can just imagine the meeting that he must have had with the army of consultants in his campaign. "It seems that voters like angry, can you do angry?" They missed the point that Newt gained votes because he passionately defended conservative principles, not because he was angry and not because he was angry at another Republican.
Also, Mitt gets this really annoying stutter when he gets angry. I know that is very superficial but as I was listening to the debate on headphones, it was practically overwhelming. Just thought I'd mention it.
3. Newt never took Romney's bait and stayed calm and on message. I think one of the goals of MItt's rapid fire strategy was to get Newt to lose his cool and look un-Presidential in a key debate. It didn't work. While Romney did connect with some punches, he missed with others and Newt didn't do anything to hurt himself in Florida. When asked about Medicare Part D and English being the official language of government he could have easily looked like a statist or a racist. Instead he provided extremely reasonable answer to both questions which I think most people would have a hard time arguing with. It is actually funny seeing the same reporters who attack Newt for being erratic say that he lost this debate for being too even-keeled. No pleasing some people (like Jennifer Rubin who has resorted to just making stuff up).
In the end, this debate was forgettable but I think Newt should get a few percentage points from Romney looking so erratic (besides his angry stutter he did admit that his immigration plan relied on "self-deportation" whatever that is) and from Santorum being so marginalized.