Jacksonville took the global spotlight Thursday night as the last opportunity for Florida voters to hear the Republican presidential hopefuls make their case in person, side by side onstage.
The 1,250 people who filled the University of North Florida Lazzara Performance Hall heard a feisty exchange among the candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“It’s the Super Bowl of debates,” said Florida Republican Party Chair Lenny Curry before the candidates took the stage at 8 p.m. for the two-hour debate.
The winner was a matter of opinion, with Romney and Gingrich supporters both claiming their candidate did well. There also was a sentiment that Santorum made a strong showing.
Polls have varied in who leads among Republican voters — Gingrich or Romney — who far outpace the others.
Curry said the Jacksonville event was pivotal to shaping the eventual nomination because of its timing before the Tuesday Presidential Preference Primary in Florida. He said whoever wins the primary could win the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
“Whoever takes Florida will be the nominee,” Curry said. “We’re so big, we’re so diverse.”
He emphasized that Floridians are looking for a vision from the candidates about what they intend to do to assist the country’s middle class and families.
Curry said he expected a candidate “to really emerge before Tuesday,” although he declined to speculate about which contender that might be.
Curry also said the debate would benefit Jacksonville.
“It’s great to see Jacksonville all over TV,” he said. “All eyes are on Jacksonville.”
He said the “earned media” was “shining a light on Jacksonville.”
“It will drive more relocation to Jacksonville. It will drive more events to Jacksonville.”
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, said after the debate that “Romney had the upper hand,” particularly on the discussion of financial issues.
“I think that Romney will get a little bit of a boost from this debate,” she said.
A who’s who of Jacksonville Republicans and supporters populated the audience, along with Mayor Alvin Brown, a Democrat, who said before the event he would be “right inside, front and center.”
About 350 reporters registered with CNN to cover the debate. The UNF student union hosted the media room and the spin room, where campaign officials made time for media interviews after the event.
At a pre-debate reception for media hosted by the JAX Chamber, Visit Jacksonville and Brown, the mayor talked about the message Jacksonville could send to the viewers. He talked about location, amenities, quality of life, workforce and other factors that he said would attract business leaders to bring jobs to the area.
The weather also played to the area’s strength. It was 78 degrees as the sun set after a clear, breezy day.
Brown said he hadn’t met with any of the visiting business leaders as of late Thursday afternoon.
Asked at the reception what he would ask the candidates given the opportunity, Brown offered two: How do you balance the federal budget and what are you going to do to put America back to work?
“Spending is out of control,” said Brown. Regarding jobs, he wanted candidates to explain their policies for providing small businesses with access to capital to create jobs, especially manufacturing positions and “21st century jobs.”