The Republican presidential debate on Thursday resembled Thai boxing more than a duel of words and ideas. If you looked hard, there was blood on the floor.
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney came to the debate with a point to prove: he can fight, and he can fight a good fight. Newt Gingrich, the man with a switch-knife, looked on the defensive.
Three of the four hopefuls have each had a win before in the Republican primary: Rick Santorum won Iowa, Romney won New Hampshire and Gingrich won South Carolina.
Ron Paul finished a close second or third in all of the above. Is it going to be him this time? Unlikely - Florida is not as libertarian as him; it's more mainstream, as the rest of the US.
"If you attack, I am going to be no shrinking violet," said Romney to a question about his bare-knuckles approach Thursday night. It was a very different Romney on show.
Gingrich, the attack dog in top form, looked flat in comparison. And sometimes Gingrich looked distinctly chastened. And then he had his oops moment with his plan to colonize the moon. All the other other candidates lit into him. Ron Paul said sure, let's send all the politician there. And Twitter exploded with comments and one-liners that Gingrich may have least expected. The two frontrunners -- Romney and Gingrich -- clashed on immigration and personal wealth, and on both counts Romney came out looking better of the two.
Gingrich, having got the better of the race in the last debate by doing an angry gig on the media, tried it again this time to salvage his performance.
"You and I Wolf (CNN host of the debate Wolf Blitzer) have known each other for along time, but ...," Gingrich said, attempting to rip into a question about his attacks on Romney.
Blitzer pushed back, but his was a lost cause until Romney came to his rescue asking Gingrich to come good on his attack: have the guts to criticize me to my face, he said.
Gingrich took the bait and lost the media fight.
For the rest of the debate Gingrich struggled to stay relevant, harking back to the Reagan era most youngsters have no recall of.
Then the moment every Republican was waiting for: Romney finally stopped sounding apologetic about his wealth and urged Republicans to believe in his success story and be proud of it. "Romney should have done before," said a conservative commentator, adding, "this is what the base wanted to hear - but he had somehow looked too shy to go there."
Florida Republicans vote on Tuesday.