What happens when a Great Debater loses a lesser debate?

Call this the Battle of Dueling Disclosures. Newt Gingrich made a lot of political hay in South Carolina by demanding that Mitt Romney release his tax returns, getting Romney to trip up twice in debates last week on the topic. When Romney finally decided to release his tax returns, he issued a demand that Gingrich release his contract with Freddie Mac, which Gingrich promptly did. Who got the better of that exchange? Last night, it was clearly Romney:

Gingrich has claimed for months that he did no lobbying for Freddie Mac, but as the contract made clear, Gingrich didn’t report to the History Department at the GSE:

GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, who has said he never lobbied on behalf of his consulting clients, reported to a top lobbyist with Freddie Mac as part of a $25,000-a-month contract,according to records released late Monday.

The one-year contract overseen by Freddie Mac executive Craig Thomas represents only a portion of the former House speaker’s long relationship with the mortgage giant, which spanned eight years and resulted in at least $1.6 million in fees for Gingrich’s empire.

A chief lobbyist at Freddie Mac isn’t going to pay $25,000 a month for history lessons.  Romney took this point and repeatedly hammered Gingrich with it, as well as with the revolts by House Republicans in 1997 and 1998 that ended up pushing Gingrich out of the Speakership and into the private sector.  Gingrich reacted by claiming that he wouldn’t spend time refuting Romney’s “falsehoods” point by point, but spent plenty of time calling Romney’s attacks “false” … and promised to respond on a website later.  Meanwhile, Romney’s tax returns turned out to be straightforward affairs, with a 15% tax rate on his capital gains, showing that Romney paid $3 million in taxes and donated almost the same amount to charity as well.

Romney won this debate rather handily, although it wasn’t a terribly entertaining affair.  All of that took place in the first 30 minutes, and what followed was more of a roundtable than a debate.  There were few intriguing moments, mostly because this was the 19th debate and almost everything else was a rehash.  Rick Santorum had the only real notable moment after this, which came at the very end — and which in a more rational cycle might have been a game-changer.

Some complained about the lack of audience participation, specifically the admonition by NBC to not applaud or cheer.  I actually liked that approach.  These debates are too much like game shows as it is; we shouldn’t weigh candidates by their applause or cheers.  The quiet definitely seemed to take the wind out of Gingrich’s sails more than the other candidates.  The real problem with the debate was the questions.  NBC’s Brian Williams basically asked the same questions we’ve already heard ad infinitum in these debates, or else focused on attack themes from the campaigns in an attempt to generate some drama.  It was no coincidence that the debate got dull after that section of the questioning.

Williams may have been dull and unoriginal (perhaps necessarily so after 19 debates), but his Florida media partners on stage made him look brilliant in comparison.  Questions about Terri Schiavo took up five minutes of debate, which was last an issue in 2005.  What, no Elian Gonzales questions?  In an economy where millions can’t find work and Florida is almost in double digit unemployment, we got a question about whether the Everglades would continue to get federal pork.  It was an entire section of non-sequiturs.

Gingrich’s poor performance raises this question: if Romney can outbox him over his Freddie Mac contract and win a debate, what does that do for Gingrich’s claim that he can win the Presidency by outdebating Barack Obama and the entire national media?  It would not surprise me to see Florida voters rethinking that premise somewhat this morning, especially since Gingrich lost this debate by walking into his own disclosure trap.