|Ron Paul supporters outside the debate said the Texas congressman receives little coverage [Roza Kazan/Al Jazeera]
Tampa, FL - It was the 18th debate in the Republican presidential nomination contest, but many commentators dubbed it as the most important one. Three of the candidates on the stage had each performed well in the three contests so far: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich.
NBC News journalist Brian Williams, the moderator of the debate at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, said the Republican primary battle found itself once again "at a critical stage", calling it "an unprecedented moment in the modern era".
Observers had predicted Romney would hammer Gingrich to win back his position as the presumptive nominee and regaining his momentum - and Romney seemingly delivered. He went after the former speaker for his association with the mortgage lending giant Freddie Mac, accusing him of being paid to lobby for the company's interests. And he reminded voters - three times in the debate's first seven minutes - that Gingrich had to resign from his post "in disgrace" in 1998.
"They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as a historian," Romney said. "They didn't hire you as a historian and this contract proves you weren't a historian. It doesn't say you provided historical experience, it says you acted as a consultant and you were hired by the chief lobbyist at Freddie Mac." He said Gingrich worked as an "influence peddler" in Washington for 15 years.
|In-depth coverage of the US presidential election
The Romney campaign later said former Massachusetts governor delivered a "knock-out".
"You saw Mitt Romney on the offensive because he wanted to draw a clear contrast between Newt Gingrich and himself," Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's senior strategist, told Al Jazeera after the debate.
Fehrnstrom said Gingrich "had his chance to provide leadership in Washington. He failed, it's now time to bring in somebody new, somebody who is not tainted by this Washington culture... and that person is Governor Romney".
Gingrich hit back at Romney during the debate, saying he only "offered strategic advice" to Freddie Mac. "I am not going to spend the evening trying to chase governor Romney's misinformation," he said early in the debate, and called Romney's attacks "trivial politics".
As Romney kept pressing him on whether he lobbied members of Congress, Gingrich cut in saying: "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You just jumped a long way over there, friend... The American people see through it."
A new tactic for Gingrich
But Gingrich appeared subdued and a lot less fiery than during the debate in South Carolina, where he lived up to an often-used description of him as "the angry Republican". According to exit polls in South Carolina, it was his hard-hitting performance in the debates that helped sway the majority of those who voted for him. Republicans said they were looking for someone who could stand up to president Obama during the debates in the general election.
Harry E Vanden, a political science professor at USF, said Gingrich was probably "trying to improve his image and not come off as too radical".
Vanden said Gingrich must have realised Florida is "nowhere near as conservative or traditional" as South Carolina. "If he came off with that aggressive and strong position, he would have probably alienated a lot of people here."
Vanden added, this less "articulate and sparkling performance" may surprise a lot of people. "One wonders if he will indeed lose some momentum because of that."
However, while many watched the debate for the expected face-off between Romney and Gingrich, the other two candidates also had their chance to voice some strong positions.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who is now polling in Florida with only 11 per cent, had the harshest words for Iran. "Obama's Iran policy has been a colossal failure," Santorum said. "[The] theocracy that runs Iran is the equivalent of having al-Qaeda in charge of a country with huge oil reserves, gas reserves and a nuclear weapon."
He said Iran was already engaged in "war-like behaviour" against the United States, "training and funding" people to "specifically to kill and maim American troops" through supplying IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be "reckless", Santorum said, "not to do something to stop them from getting this nuclear weapon".
A different line
But Texas congressman Ron Paul said he believed Iran's behaviour was explained by the pressure it was facing from the US. He tried to reason why Iran might want to deliver on its threat to close the Straits of Hormuz. "We are blockading them," Paul said. "Can you imagine what we would do if someone blockaded the Gulf of Mexico?"
He went on to repeat his views that the US has "no money and too many wars". "The people want to come home (from wars)… And they certainly don't want a hot war in Iran right now." Paul said it would be "the most foolish thing in the world right now to take on Iran".
"... the main reason why I support Dr Paul is because he's the only one of the candidates who says he wants to bring all of our troops home from across the globe."
- David Farris, Ron Paul supporter
The chairman of Paul's campaign later praised him for bringing those notions once again onto the national stage. Jesse Benton told Al Jazeera that Ron Paul "once again showed why he's the only guy that's different on the stage".
"Everybody else was bickering about silly issues," Benton said. "Dr Paul talked about the key issues of the day: real cuts in spending, protecting civil liberties and turning to a common sense pro-American foreign policy."
He said Paul did not get enough time in the debate - but that the campaign
"is used to it".
"The establishment is always scared of Ron Paul," Benton said. He also said the US needs to have "an adult conversation about the real issues that matter to Americans" and not "throw elbows at each other".
'Ron Paul revolution'
It was a sentiment that was echoed by several hundred of Ron Paul supporters who stood outside the debate's venue. Holding signs reading "End the Fed" and "Ron Paul Revolution", they told Al Jazeera that Ron Paul was the only candidate who seemed to provide "real answers", in their view, but was not adequately covered by the media.
David Farris, a 39-year-old private security contractor from Tampa, told Al Jazeera that mainstream media ignored Ron Paul. "The media says he only attracts teenagers or druggies. But the main reason why I support Dr Paul is because he's the only one of the candidates who says he wants to bring all of our troops home from across the globe... [to end the] costly and immoral wars we are fighting."
Another supporter, John Kelly, 31, a cook, said he has two small children and does not want them drafted to go to war. "I felt if I didn't come out to show my support, he would be overlooked by the media as he usually is," Kelly said.
The Morrisons, a family of five, came to support Ron Paul as the "only constitutional candidate". Matthew Morrison told Al Jazeera: "He is honest. For three decades, he has been consistent and has always voted and stuck by his principles and his morals, which are in line with the Constitution". Morrison added: "To me, there is no point in being a patriotic American if you don't want to uphold the Constitution."
Another supporter, Mary Ferguson, a 51-year-old high school math and reading teacher, said she had been an independent, but decided to become a Republican in this campaign to vote for Ron Paul.
Ferguson said that, even if Ron Paul does not become the Republican nominee, he has "already made a huge difference in this country". According to Ferguson, people now talk about the issues he has raised "on every corner, in every neighbourhood".
Follow Roza Kazan on Twitter: @RozaKazan