JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - This time, the cheering will be back. Five days before their showdown in Florida’s Republican presidential primary, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney headed into a debate on Thursday night that had the makings of a raucous encounter between increasingly bitter rivals.
Unlike Monday’s subdued debate in Tampa, in which the crowd was urged to remain silent and not cheer candidates’ answers, this debate will allow cheering.
Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker who in previous debates has seemed to feed off the energy from vibrant crowds, said after Monday’s debate that he did not want to attend cheer-free debates.
Gingrich and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, are in a close race in a politically divided state whose primary may set the tone for the rest of the state-by-state campaign to pick a Republican challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
If Gingrich pulls off a second straight victory after his decisive triumph in last Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, he would be seen as the front-runner in the race despite Romney’s advantages in fundraising and organization.
It would be another improbable turn for Gingrich, whose campaign collapsed last summer only to come back to life on the strength of strong performances in debates.
A Romney victory could resurrect his status as the man to beat in the Republican field, which also includes former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul.
Recent polls suggest Florida is up for grabs between Romney and Gingrich.
Gingrich surged into the lead in some polls in Florida after his South Carolina win, but in recent days Romney has climbed back on top, barely, on the strength of a string of negative attacks against Gingrich.
This makes the 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT) debate, a two-hour affair sponsored by CNN, particularly important. A solid performance by Gingrich could give him a burst of momentum heading into a busy final weekend of campaigning.
Gingrich’s strong showing in a South Carolina debate was fueled by a conservative audience that cheered when Gingrich blasted CNN moderator John King over a question about Gingrich’s personal life.
King had asked him about allegations made by Gingrich’s second wife that he had asked her to have an “open marriage” so Gingrich could continue an affair with another woman. Gingrich turned the question in a strident attack on the news media, which he said was trying to shoot down Republican candidates.
In Thursday’s debate, “it’s important for Romney to have another good debate and for Newt not to score one of his ‘drama queen’ moments again,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black, a Romney supporter.
Romney has spent the week trying to raise doubts about Gingrich, pointing to the time after he left the House when he made a fortune as a well-connected Washington insider.
Romney cited the $1.6 million that Gingrich made from troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac as an example of “influence-peddling,” and demanded that Gingrich show records of what he did for the money.
“We can’t have influence peddlers running our party,” he said on Wednesday.
Romney’s attacks and their toll on Gingrich’s poll numbers have left the former speaker spoiling for a fight.
“All he is doing now is piling on as much mud as he can find to see if he can somehow ground the Gingrich campaign,” Gingrich told Fox News on Wednesday.