Florida Flippers

There were two big differences in last night's GOP debate in Tampa: Mitt & Newt changed their approach; and the live audience wasn't a mob.

I suspect the latter had plenty to do with the Newt's flip. And, clearly, Mitt's South Carolina loss had everything to do with his flip.

Consider. Mitt, after being badly stung in the Palmetto state, last night stung back. He went at Newt with pointed, direct-hit reminders that Newt "resigned in disgrace" as House speaker and went on to become a Washington "influence-peddler" making millions off political contacts.

Newt, for his part, was a different Newt -- because of the crowd. It wasn't the rowdy bunch these debates have been marked by. There was no cheering or booing for Newt to play off. There was no yee-haw affirmation of his anger at media or his put-down of questions.

Instead, Newt was left to parry Mitt's attacks with claims that they are "trivial politics" and a slip-the-noose assertion that he didn't want to "waste the time" responding to specifics.

But Mitt's morphing into "Mitt the Merciless" seemed to work. He tagged Newt for saying he worked for Freddie-Mac as "an historian" by noting Newt reported to the mortgage-lender's chief lobbyist.

Newt offered the weak defense that he "offered advice based on my knowledge of history."

Oh, brother.

Debate rules were ignored by NBC moderator Brian Williams as Newt and Mitt, whose podiums were beside each other, went at it for several minutes. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul stood like bookends, their podiums off camera, there presence all but ignored.

Paul still looks like he forgets to take the coat hanger out of his suit jacket, and still sounds like his mind races ahead of his mouth.

Santorum still talks about how he can win Pennsylvania, which, of course, he lost by 17 points the last time he ran here.

(In past, he's noted that Abraham Lincoln lost a Senate race then ran for, and won, the White House. I'd note that Rick's no Abraham Lincoln and that, in those days, state legislatures, not the public, elected U.S. Senators.)

Mitt and Newt go at it again Thursday night. Rick and Ron will be there, too. The way things are going, lots of Republicans must hope someone new gets in the race to, you know, flip things around.