Open thread: The nastiest debate yet?

9 p.m. ET on NBC. Said Newt today of Romney’s panic, “If you’ve been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate, and when you get desperate you say almost anything. And I think tonight’s debate will probably stretch the barrier of almost anything.” There’s all the reason you need to watch. Meanwhile, brand new from PPP:

PPP’s first post-South Carolina poll in Florida finds Newt Gingrich with a small lead. He’s at 38% to 33% for Mitt Romney, 13% for Rick Santorum, and 10% for Ron Paul…

If Rick Santorum drops out between now and next Tuesday, Gingrich will be the beneficiary. His voters prefer Gingrich over Romney 50-23, and in a field where he’s no longer a candidate Newt’s lead expands to 43-36…

Newt is drawing out new voters. With the 11% of the electorate that didn’t vote in the 2008 primary, he leads 40-30. Meanwhile Romney is having trouble holding onto the folks who voted for him in 2008. 37% are supporting someone else this time, with 19% of them moving toward Gingrich. This was a big problem for Romney in Iowa as well- if he could just hold onto the folks who supported him last time he’d be winning easily. But he doesn’t inspire a passionate enough following to keep folks in the fold.

Sixteen percent say they’ve already voted and, as expected, Romney leads among them — but only by a margin of 43/40, which is much narrower than analysts expected. Unless something dramatic happens this week, Gingrich should have no trouble overcoming that next Tuesday, especially if Santorum quits. (Imagine the frantic phone calls of encouragement Santorum is getting from establishment bigwigs right now.) The lingering question: How exactly did Newt Gingrich’s comeback become some sort of victory for tea partiers? Isn’t he, as James Delingpole puts it, a “rent-seeking DC insider who profited from the taxpayer via Fannie Mae and who recently attacked Mitt Romney’s record at Bain from the left”? More from Michael Crowley:

Newt has inarguably lived the good life of an Establishment man. As House Speaker he made no serious effort to take on the culture of Washington. Instead, he oversaw an expanded alliance between K Street lobbyists and congressional Republicans. And after he left Congress–purged by his colleagues, not for threatening their interests but for botching the politics of Bill Clinton’s impeachment–he settled comfortably into a life of lucrative speaking and influence-peddling…

[H]e favors huge tax cuts–probably the Establishment’s top priority. He wants to cut regulations, slash entitlements, and kill off ObamaCare–all sure fire applause lines at the American Enterprise Institute. True, his radical plan to rein in “activist judges” has drawn withering reviews from some certifiable Establishment men. But that’s not enough to explain the strong opposition to him in the sitting rooms of McLean, Virginia, which has become to the Republican Establishment what Georgetown once was to the Democratic elite (and where, incidentally, Newt himself lives). The bottom line is that Gingrich has more in common with Ross Douthat than with Ross Perot.

To the extent Newt threatens the Establishment, it’s because of his electability–or lack thereof. The GOP’s mandarins see Gingrich’s nomination as a sure way to blow their chance of deposing Barack Obama. They see Gingrich as the political equivalent of a Fukushima nuclear plant worker, with polls showing him to be lethally irradiated by his negative approval ratings.

All true. But wait — aren’t tea partiers actually more likely than other GOP sub-groups to compromise on ideology in hopes of defeating Obama? In theory, if Romney’s the most electable candidate, they should be grudgingly breaking towards him right now in the interest of beating O, not away from him. What gives? The answer, I think, lies in this nugget from Jonah Goldberg about Romney: “Politics is about persuasion and he’s simply not persuasive. I’m rapidly losing confidence that as a general election candidate he would be able to win over the crucial voters he would need to seal the deal.” That is to say, I think the base is increasingly convinced that Romney’s not appreciably more electable than Gingrich is. It’s not that Newt is looking better than he used to, it’s that Romney looks more wooden and dismal the more you’re exposed to him, which bodes ill for the general. If there’s no great electability disparity between them, why not gamble on the guy who at least has a mostly conservative record and who relishes throwing roundhouses at the left?

If that’s what’s happening then Romney’s new strategy of going harshly negative makes sense. He can’t sell himself, but maybe he can sell voters on the idea that Gingrich is a sure loser against O. There’s never really been an argument for Romney, after all, just an argument that there’s no viable Not Romney in the field. He’s got eight days to make the case. Here’s the Hot Air/Townhall Twitter widget plus a livefeed from NBC of the debate. And in case you’re wondering, no, Marco Rubio won’t be endorsing in the primary. Given how often he’s been touted as a potential Romney VP, that’s the best evidence yet of how much trouble Mitt’s in down in Florida. Exit question from Timothy Carney, who’s looking over the Freddie Mac contract that Gingrich’s camp just released: If Newt was merely a historian for them, why was he hired by their chief lobbyist?

Update: A brand new ad from Team Romney attacking his opponent’s “anti-establishment” image: Newt Gingrich, Washington insider.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy