The Debate: Romney, Santorum Trade Gut Punches

The Republican debate that just ended moments ago should not inspire confidence for Republicans. With Barack Obama suddenly rising in the polls, and a shocking number of Americans convinced of the nonsensical proposition that the economy is dramatically improving, the Republican candidate must inspire, skewer, and defend. The candidates onstage showed flashes of brilliance at times, but overall, they disappointed on all three categories.

Rick Santorum: The current Republican frontrunner did not have a good night. He was at his best when he was on the attack against Mitt Romney – he smacked Romney particularly hard on Romneycare – but he fell short when it came to his votes on No Child Left Behind and Title X, and his support for Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania (inexplicably, he didn’t cite Romney’s support for Paul Tsongas in 1992). His offense was better than his defense. And as we learned from the New England Patriots, that isn’t a recipe for success.


He also dropped a true gaffe tonight in justifying his vote on NCLB when he reminded the audience that politics “is a team sport.” Ron Paul saw his opportunity and bashed Santorum between the eyes, explaining that the go-along to get-along attitude in Washington D.C. is exactly what’s wrong with the place.

There were flashes of greatness for Santorum, particularly on family values, where he gave a devastating critique of the social impact of liberal policies. But he then said he just wanted to talk about the issues and didn’t want government to act on them – a great idea for a coffee talk, but a bad idea in a presidential debate. Santorum’s answers on Iran were excellent, too, although his perspective on Syria is problematic, since we’ve already learned what happens when we arm those we don’t know. He avoided talk about the Satan speech, which was a big win for him. Overall grade: C.

Mitt Romney: Mitt Romney needed either a great debate tonight or a bad performance from Santorum to end this. He didn’t get either. He scored points on the Specter argument – he put Santorum on the defensive quickly, and kept him there all night with charges about the debt ceiling, No Child Left Behind, and Title X – but he too got hit hard, particularly on Obamacare. He seemed like he was slightly out-of-sorts sometimes, and almost faded into the background at others.

He avoided the big gaffe, which is what Romney is famous for doing. Santorum had highs and lows; Romney sailed along with phasers set to “mediocre” the entire night. He didn’t inspire, and the fact that the crowd was obviously stacked for him didn’t help him. Instead, it made him look somewhat desperate. The momentum seems to be leaning Romney’s way a little – he’s upticking in a number of states – so perhaps he’s hoping for the Florida effect, in which his proxies finish off Santorum while he dances through unscathed. It may work. But there’s no question that when he said he was resolute, he wasn’t kidding – his campaign strategy never changes. Overall grade: C+, but only because he just needed to hold steady. And that’s Romney’s specialty.

Newt Gingrich: Gingrich seems more relaxed when he’s not the target. He issued the best lines of the debate, over and over again. He ripped the teachers unions, stating that if a foreign country attacked us the way the teachers unions have done, we’d consider it an act of war (+1). He said he tends to believe dictators, since it’s risky not to (+1). He told the audience he was cheerful (+1). Gingrich’s only hope in this race is to watch Romney and Santorum savage each other, and try to clean up in their wake. It would not be surprising to see Gingrich begin to gain support in Georgia again. If he survives Super Tuesday, Santorum, not Gingrich, may be the one on the way out. But that’s a big “if,” since we’re apparently back in “debates don’t matter” mode. Overall grade: B+.

Ron Paul: Ron Paul was his usual combative self, and his eyebrows looked as though they were crawling off his face all night. But he got in perhaps the most important jab of the night when he ripped Rick Santorum’s Washington insider status after Santorum left himself wide open on the “team player” comment. Paul’s foreign policy nonsense is unvaryingly irritating, but he played a crucial role. Overall grade: D.


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