Gingrich, Romney disagree over debate crowds


TAMPA — Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Tuesday he doesn’t want to continue debating his Republican rivals if the audience isn’t allowed to participate. His campaign said later that he would participate in upcoming debates, regardless of the audience rules.

Gingrich, whose rise in the polls and come-from-behind victory in the South Carolina followed well-received debate performances, complained that people were admonished by NBC News anchor and debate moderator Brian Williams not to applaud during Monday night’s debate in Tampa. The candidates are to debate Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla.

“That’s wrong,” the former House speaker told Fox News. “The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to. It was almost silly.”

Disagreeing with his rival, Mitt Romney told reporters that the rules for general-election debates are much stricter and that Gingrich would have to be willing to follow the rules of the Presidential Debate Commission.

“He better learn to debate in all settings,” Romney said.

Romney’s advisers believe that audience participation drove Gingrich’s breakout moments in two debates in South Carolina. They were pleased with the audience reaction during Monday night’s debate, calling it more serious than the raucous crowds at the second South Carolina debate.

Gingrich was an audience favorite at the two debates in South Carolina, particularly when he admonished debate moderator John King of CNN for bringing up the subject of ex-wife Marianne Gingrich and her allegation that Gingrich had sought an “open marriage” as he was having an affair with the woman now his wife, Callista. Audience members applauded and cheered Gingrich’s criticism of King, as well as some of his policy statements.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was the GOP’s nominee in 2008, said Tuesday that he thinks debates have had an inordinate influence, and at times a negative one, on the primary campaign. McCain is supporting Romney’s bid for the nomination.

“It’s very harmful to Republicans because of instead of presenting their views, their policies and their proposals — it’s all gotcha, it’s all gotcha,” McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. “And disapproval ratings go up. And people spend an hour or two insulting each other. So I think it’s very damaging.”