JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Republican Newt Gingrich has had great success recently by firing up conservative voters with attacks on debate moderators. But a flat-footed performance in Thursday's debate suggests he might have tried the tactic once too often.
The former U.S. House speaker's runaway win in the South Carolina primary on Saturday was attributed in large part to the way he went after the mainstream media in general and debate moderators in particular.
But Gingrich's jab at Thursday's moderator, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, failed to stick as he, Romney, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas Representative Ron Paul took part in the final debate before Tuesday's Republican primary.
"This is a nonsense question," Gingrich huffed when Blitzer asked about Romney's tax and financial disclosures. "How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?" Gingrich said.
The comment drew moderate applause but Blitzer did not back down.
"Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, 'He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.' I didn't say that. You did."
Gingrich said he was "perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate."
That gave Romney an opening, drawing loud applause by saying "it would be nice" if candidates did not make accusations elsewhere that they would not repeat.
Gingrich tried again to unite the audience, slamming "an increasingly aggressive war against religion and in particular against Christianity in this country, largely a secular elite and the academic news media."
While the comment drew applause, sentiment among the audience seemed more balanced. Many responded to Romney's more aggressive debate persona.
One of Romney's biggest applause lines was saying that Gingrich has a pattern of pandering to local audiences - promising a new Veterans Administration hospital in New Hampshire a few weeks ago and a moon colony on Wednesday when he visited Florida's Space Coast.
"I spent 25 years in business," Romney said. "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'"
Editing by Bill Trott