Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul all face a crucial test in Florida next week.
Monday night, the four remaining GOP primary candidates will meet at the University of South Florida in Tampa for the first of two debates before the 2012 primary on Jan. 31.
It will be hosted by The Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, The National Journal and the Florida Council of 100.
The Republican National Committee removed half of Florida's delegates when the state decided to move its primary before March 6. But now that Gingrich has overtaken Romney in polls as the latest frontrunner, Florida's reputation as a state that provides a good cross-section of Republican voters makes it vital.
Romney's distant second-place finish in South Carolina was a wake-up call to the former Massachusetts governor. Since 1980, South Carolina's primary pick has been the Republican nominee. Now that the crucial Southern state has sided with Gingrich, the New Hampshire primary winner will have to step up his game. He must prove that he can appeal to a more diverse group of conservative voters than just moderate-leaning Republicans.
For Gingrich, meanwhile, a big win in Florida would signal that his South Carolina victory wasn't just a fluke, helped along by some cutting debate performances. If Gingrich can sweep the South, the chances of him winning the nomination are greatly increased.
Santorum, on the other hand, should be looking to stay in the race at all. His virtual tie in the Iowa caucus, now acknowledged as an unofficial win, will not be enough to keep him relevant as the race goes on. The former Pennsylvania senator will need to do more than simply impress Monday night: He must find a way to bring both Romney and Gingrich down a peg.
Paul finds himself in a similarly tough situation, but the Texas congressman doesn't have as much riding on Florida as Santorum does. Paul announced Sunday that he would stay in the GOP primary race even if he doesn't do well in the South, focusing his attentions on caucus states like Maine, Minnesota and Nevada. Since Florida hosts a closed primary -- which means only registered Republican Party identifiers can vote in it -- Paul's chances of winning are already slim, since the bulk of his support so far has come from independents and libertarians, not the GOP establishment.
The International Business Times will be live-blogging tonight's debate on this page starting at 9 p.m. EST. Be sure to check back regularly for updates. -----
10:50 p.m.: The debate is over. Who do you think won? Be sure to vote in our IBTimes poll, running tonight through tomorrow afternoon.
10:45 p.m.: We have tremendous biases against doing the right thing and getting things done, Gingrich concludes. He ends by saying that he asks voters not to vote for him but to vote with him.
10:44 p.m.: Newt Gingrich is asked what would scare him about the presidency if he won the 2012 election. Gingrich says he agrees with Santorum that the next president will face enormous, difficult problems, many of which he says have been given an accurate diagnosis by Dr. Paul.
10:43 p.m.: We're still a great nation, Romney counters. But a great nation doesn't have so many people suffering.
10:42 p.m.: Brian Williams asks Romney when the last time was that the U.S. was a great nation.
10:40 p.m.: Romney says the late Sen. Edward Kennedy had to take out a mortgage on his house to beat him in their 1994 Senate contest. It's an odd statement to make when he still being ripped for his involvement in Bain Capital as its CEO.
10:38 p.m.: Paul is asked if he thinks Gingrich and Romney aren't true conservatives. I think we've completely lost our way! Paul responded. He argues that he is the most conservative candidate, since conservatism means saving money and playing it smart. His answer, not Santorum's, gets the applause.
10:37 p.m.: There is no difference, Santorum says, between President Obama -- he gestures to Gingrich and Romney -- and these two gentlemen.
10:37 p.m.: They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand, Santorum said of Romney and Gingrich. It's gonna be hard to stand.
10:36 p.m.: There are those who preach conservatism and the private sector, Santorum says, but when push came to shove, they pushed.
10:35 p.m.: There are more fundamental issues than that, Santorum says. There's a problem with two of the people up here with me. Santorum goes after Gingrich and Romney as being fair-weather conservatives.
10:33 p.m.: Williams asks Santorum how his candidacy will be affected by Gingrich's ties to Freddie Mac and Romney's history with Bain and his upcoming tax releases. Santorum takes the opportunity to go after both of them, hard.
10:31 p.m.: Is this race a battle for soul of the Republican Party? Mitt Romney doesn't really answer the question, but he and the other candidates do outline what they've contributed to the GOP.
10:25 p.m.: Reinhard asks Gingrich, If tax cuts create jobs, why didn't the Bush tax cuts work? Gingrich argues that those cuts, which expire at the end of this year, actually stopped the U.S. from being into in much worse shape. Williams calls for the final commercial break.
10:24 p.m.: The conversation turns back to NASA and the Space Coast. Both Gingrich and Romney promote more money and resources for space programs.
10:22 p.m.: Paul is more practical. He says the tragic case should teach people the importance of living wills.
10:20: Gingrich builds on Santorum's points, and says that the rights he claims were denied Terri Schiavo would have been afforded criminals on death row. It strikes me that having a bias in favor of life... is automatic, he says.
10:18 p.m.: Adam Smith asks Santorum about the Terri Schiavo case, and his intervention to try and keep her alive. Santorum argues that he wasn't fighting for legislative intervention but to have a judicial court examine the case. They [her parents] wanted to see some other pairs of eye to take a look at it. That's what I did, and I would do it again. Santorum gets his first applause of the night.
10:14 pm.: Brian Williams signals another break.
10:13 p.m.: Romney goes after Obama for almost the first time in the debate. He plays 90 rounds of golf when we have 20 million people out of work, he says. He also slams the president for not promoting NASA more. The Space Coast, Romney asserts, is hurting.
10:11 p.m.: The debate turns to the federal sugar subsidy in Florida. Both Romney and Gingrich say the subsidy must go, even though many Floridian businesses depend on that to thrive.
10:09 p.m.: Santorum supports Romney's self-deportation idea. Illegal immigrants don't just break one law, he asserts: they must constantly break laws in order to stay in the U.S. He recalls his own family's struggles to get into the country, but says his father went without his family in order to gain citizenship. Why? America was worth it to do it the right way.
10:08 p.m.: Romney argues for self-deportation, which he argues happens when restrictions against hiring illegal immigrants cause them to go home without forced deportation. Twitter users immediately begin to speculate as to what, exactly, Romney means by this statement.
10:07 p.m.: On the DREAM Act, both Gingrich and Romney argue that they would have much more support for the bill if it focused on the military service provision, not on college education.
10:06: Ron Paul believes in a more generous policy, saying he sees no issue with having ballots in other languages like Spanish.
10:05 p.m.: Romney agrees, calling English the language of America, and says that not learning English limits immigrant's ability to pursue the American Dream.
10:04 p.m.: Gingrich argues that an official language creates a common bond for U.S. citizens and allow them to rise economically. He supports having voting ballots only in English.
10:03 p.m.: Reinhard points out that although all the candidates on stage support making English as America's official language, thgey have been courting voters in press releases and ads in Spanish.
10:01 p.m.: Reinhard asks Santorum about expanding BP drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which would threaten Florida tourism but would provide jobs within the oil company. Santorum acknowledges that Florida relies on the tourist trade to survive, but says that domestic oil drilling and transport is of key importance.
9:59 p.m.: Santorum gets in on the Iran question. Where do you limit the target list? Williams asks him. How do you go after Iran, if it comes to war? Santorum asserts that the theocracy that runs Iran is the equivalent of al-Qaeda running the country and slams Obama for -- he suggests -- considering allowing Iran to keep nuclear weapons.
9:58 p.m.: A lot of people thought a GOP debate should have Adam Smith, Williams jokes during the introductions. The audience, warned not to be too loud, gives the moderator some very subdued chuckles for his pains.
9:54 p.m.: Ron Paul does not say he would negotiate with the Taliban, but does assert that the Middle East is not as big a threat as it's made out to be. We don't have any money, he says. We have too many wars... [Americans] certainly don't want a hot war in Iran right now. Brian Williams signals the next commercial break, and announces that Smith and Reinhard will be joining him when NBC returns.
9:53 p.m.: How do you win a war against the Taliban without talking to them? Williams asks Romney. Romney's response? By beating them.
9:52 p.m.: Gingrich accuses Obama of being so weak that Iran would shut the Stait of Hormuz without any fear of reprisal. Dictators respond to strength, not weakness, he says.
9:51 p.m.: Interesting to note that Santorum is the only candidate not to get any audience applause so far.
9:45 p.m.: Paul is a bit in shock at Gingrich's answer. I have a little bit of work to do on my foreign policy! he says. He has a message for Gingrich: The Cold War is over. Talking about keeping Cubans out of America while promoting a covert revolution in the country is a remnant of the 1960s.
9:43 p.m.: Brian Williams brings up the Cuba question, and Gingrich plays to the home crowd in Florida. Fidel Castro won't meet his maker, he says. He's going to go to the other place. Gingrich calls for a Cuban Spring accomplished by covert ops and other measures, as he says Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II used against the Soviets.
9:40 p.m.: Ron Paul is asked whether the government owes people anything. The government owed them a free market and a sound monetary system! Paul responded. But now that the bubble has burst, he argues, the best thing to do is for the government to get out of the way.
9:39 p.m.: Santorum agrees, and goes after Harry Reid, Joe Biden and Barack Obama, all of whom were in the Senate at the time. He casts himself as a warrior against Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Let capitalism work, he argues. Allow banks to fail, and mistakes to end in learning, not in bailouts. He does say, however, that the government should help those people trying to recover by allowing them to deduct losses on their homes.
9:37 p.m.: A question for Santorum. We've been nibbling around the edges of this foreclosure crisis, moderator Brian Williams said. Did the American government make it too easy for Americans to get a home?
9:32 p.m.: Williams cuts off Romney's rebuttal for a commercial break. When we come back, we'll welcome in the other two gentlemen to this conversation, he says, to some laughter in the audience.
9:31 p.m.: You just jumped a long way over here... friend, Gingrich says. I understand your technique. It's unfortunate and it's not going to work very well, because the American people will see through it. He insists that public advocacy is the right of every citizen and cannot be considered lobbying, even if he was in the company's employ at the time.
9:30 p.m.: Romney says how much Bain made when he was CEO was irrelevant, then says Gingrich lobbied in Washington. Gingrich goes in for the kill.
9:29 p.m.: Romney won't back down. You were making over a million dollars while people in Florida were being hurt by millions of dollars, he says. Gingrich looks incredulous, and increasingly red. Gingrich argues that the money he made with Freddie Mac was not personal but divided into various entities.
9:28 p.m.: Gingrich jabs back at Romney, who claims that he was not hired as an historian but as a consultant. There's a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty, Gingrich said, and that's sad.
9:26 p.m.: Williams says Santorum must be included in Romney's assertion. No, I didn't mean to [include him], Romney says. In fact, Gingrich is the only one still on the stage to have gone after Romney for his time as Bain's CEO.
9:23 p.m.: Romney says he'd support tax reform that lowered tax rates and broadened the base of taxpayers like Bowles-Simpson, a reference to the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission in 2012. Bowles-Simpson proposed raising roughly $1 trillion in new revenue by gutting tax expenditures. Some Senate Republicans endorsed it, but House Republicans rejected the idea because it essentially raised taxes, even if they supported the Bowles-Simpson process more broadly.
9:21 p.m.: The conversation turns back to Romney's tax returns. Romney says there will be no surprises in his records, which will be released tomorrow. He repeats the same idea he's said before, that he will not apologize for being successful, and tries to navigate around the issue by saying the real issue is the taxes of the American people.
9:18 p.m.: If you don't get the nomination, do you go your own way? Williams asks. Well, I've done a lot of that in my lifetime, Paul jokes. Williams specifies: would he run as a third party candidate?. No, Paul says. Would he support Gingrich? Paul hedges, but admits it's a possibility. If I could just change him on foreign policy, Paul says, we could talk business!
9:16 p.m.: Paul references the first question and Romney's rebuttal to defend Gingrich. It was chaotic [in the late 1990s], Paul said. He praised Gingrich for boldly tackling resistance in Congress.
9:15 p.m.: Williams ask Paul why, if he has such a fervent following, he isn't sure he'll make it to the White House. Paul says that while some candidates may daydream about the White House, he's in the race to stand up for his principles. He then says he is in fact rather electable.
9:14 p.m.: Santorum claims he's electable, but Williams points out that Santorum lost re-election in his home state. Santorum counters that 2006 was a meltdown year for Republicans, and that he stuck by his principles.
9:13 p.m.: Santorum gets a question. Between the erratic Gingrich and the moderate Romney, where does he fit? Santorum argues that he will push for a positive image of America that harkens back to the Reagan era. I will present a contrast to Obama. I will make him the issue in this race.
9:12 pm.: He may have been a good financier, he's a terrible historian, Gingrich says when Romney brings up the ethics probe the former speaker endured in the 1990s. You ought to stop and look at the facts.
9:11 p.m.: I learned something from South Carolina, Romney says.I'm not going to sit back without returning fire.
9:09 p.m.: Gingrich claims that Romney has just said at three or four blatantly false claims, but says he won't waste time nitpicking and wasting time. Romney fights back, claiming that Gingrich can't talk about negative attacks when he himself challenged Romney on Bain Capital when he himself was working with Freddie Mac as an influence peddler.
9:07 p.m.: Gingrich slams Romney for his rebuttal, in which the governor claims that he was working his way up while the former speaker was playing politics and had to resign in disgrace as speaker.
9:06 p.m.: Williams gives the same question to Romney, wondering if he can truly connect to potential voters. It's a question of leadership, Romney argues. You're looking for a person who can lead this country in a critical time... the leader of the free world has to lead the rest of the world.
9:03 p.m.: They're not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay, They're sending somebody to change it, Gingrich responds. He claims that a candidate needs to be controversial to get things done.
9:01 p.m.: Since we last gathered, three of you on stage have enjoyed victories, Williams says, and notes that many voters are looking for the nominee that is the most electable. Williams asks Gingrich if he is electable, noting that Romney has called him erratic and arguing that his candidacy could generate an October surprise a day.
9:00 p.m.: The debate begins. Brian Williams welcomes viewers to the University of South Florida. Lord knows, everyone knows each other by now, Williams jokes.
8:45 p.m.: Pre-debate dialogue begins. This is the 18th debate of the Republican primary season so far, and after Newt Gingrich's upset in South Carolina, Mitt Romney's status as frontrunner remains insecure. Commentators agree that he'll have to come out strong tonight, and show more passion, if he hopes to convince Floridians that he can beat Newt Gingrich's bite.
8:34 p.m.: Waiting for the event to begin, as guesses at the first question of the evening already begin to take over Twitter. Tonight's GOP debate will be hosted by Brian Williams of NBC's Rock Center. Additional questions will be provided by Adam Smith from the Tampa Bay Times and Beth Reinhard of the National Journal.