Guy Benson
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Tonight's highly-anticipated slugfest never materialized as billed.  Instead, Mitt Romney glided through nearly unscathed, some of the sharpest exchanges came over ancillary or inane issues, and the ABC News team dreamed up some of the worst debate questions recent memory.  What a letdown.  My instant scorecard:
 

Mitt Romney is your winner, strategically speaking, at least.  Sure, the former Massachusetts Governor had some very strong answers (his destruction of George Stephanopolous' specious "gotcha" questions on banning contraception was a highlight), but Romney emerged victorious principally because none of his rivals even came close to knocking him off his game.  Most didn't even try, which is utterly confounding.  Newt tossed a few tepid jabs Romney's way at the very beginning (on Bain Capital) and at the end (on their respective economic plans), but neither exchange was memorable or salient.  Jon Huntsman tangled with Romney on China at the tail end of the night and tried to bait his fellow ex-governor on his Bay State jobs record -- without success.  In short, no one even approached laying a glove on the frontrunner.  I don't understand it.  Romney was perfectly content to keep his focus on underlining President Obama's failures and agreeing with his competitors whenever possible.  His closing riff on competing visions for the future of the country felt like a defining moment -- which Michael Barone chronicles here. Overall, Team Mitt couldn't have scripted this night any better.  I'm still trying to process why no one else on stage appeared eager to alter the script.

Rick Santorum was sharp and thoughtful tonight, and benefitted noticeably from the increased air time.  He didn't come across as the embittered culture warrior that many Lefties try to portray him as, even when questions on social issues over-stayed their welcome.  More on that later.  Santorum effectively parried some jousting from Ron Paul, and landed one of the best lines of the night.  After the moderators challenged Ron Paul over his campaign's particularly shrill attacks against Santorum ("corrupt"), Paul's answer was briefly interrupted by loud microphone feedback.  Without missing a beat, Santorum quipped, "maybe it knows you're not telling the truth."  Well played.  I suspect Santorum's momentum will continue to build.  He was at ease on stage, displayed a solid command of a wide array of issues, and spoke passionately about Iran and national security.  His two attempts to draw contrasts with Romney came at the beginning (the managers vs. leaders distinction), and at the end (on healthcare, when he expressed his consistent opposition to individual mandates).  That last point may require a fact check.  All in all, a good night for the former Senator.

Newt Gingrich had, by and large, a terrific showing.  He didn't go nuclear on Romney as so many -- myself included -- expected.  As I suggested above, his hits against the frontrunner were pretty tame.  Beyond the brief back-and-forth on Bain Capital, Romney never even received (or sought) a chance to reply to the former Speaker's criticisms.  That's how rare and lukewarm they were.  I would add that his multiple citations of the New York Times' anti-Bain attack was particularly lame.   Newt excelled tonight by returning to the tactics that sustained his original comeback: Media criticism and policy substance.  After an interminable series of queries about gay rights began to vex almost everyone in the hall (and at home, I'd imagine), Newt absolutely sliced up the moderators for their biased and extraneous questions.  He challenged their relevancy and wondered why the media won't focus on the other side of this equation: Namely, the Obama administration's numerous anti-religious liberty mandates that have targeted Christians, and especially Catholic hospitals.  It was Newt at his indignant best, and the audience roared its approval.  Kudos.  What seemed bizarre was Newt's apparent eagerness to spar with Ron Paul.  He was visibly irritated by several of Paul's assertions, but what does Gingirch have to gain by engaging in protracted back-and-forths with Paul?  Curious.

Jon Hunstman turned in perhaps his strongest debate of the cycle, answering several questions ably and urging viewers to examine both his excellent record as Utah's Governor and his strong economic plan.  At times, he strayed back into his stale boilerplate about restoring Americans' trust (it's not a bad sentiment, he's just used the same line ad nauseam), and drew an audible groan in the media room when he busted out some Mandarin during a discussion of trade policy.  In short, Huntsman was better than usual, but that isn't saying much.  It wasn't a breakout performance, and it won't move the needle too much.

Rick Perry scored with several answers tonight, most notably his first and last contributions to the discussion.  Both of those pinnacles arose when Perry spoke forcefully and convincingly about the Texas model on jobs, regulation and energy.  Unfortunately for the Lone Star governor, the clip that will go viral was his insistence that he would redeploy American troops into Iraq.  Perry was undeniably justified in decrying the Obama administration's shameful bungling of critical withdrawal negotiations, but framing the issue the way he did is extremely politically problematic -- even if his motives are honorable.  Overall, Perry used his infrequent opportunities to speak to steer voters' attention to his state's stellar job record, and to emphasize the need for a Washington outsider with executive experience to clean up the country's mess.  That's a strong message.  Will it take hold in South Carolina, or is it too late?

Ron Paul was the most pugnacious combatant tonight, fearlessly (if occasionally disingenuously) confronting nearly all of his opponents throughout the session.  Untouched?  Mitt Romney.  Anyone want to explain that for me?  I'm all ears.  Paul had his share of high points -- reveling in his reputation as the group's resident Constitutionalist -- and a few swings and misses.  Many Republicans may be slightly alarmed by Paul's refusal (again) to rule out running as a third party candidate if he doesn't win the nomination.  Is he committed to defeating President Obama or not?

ABC News earns a special mention tonight, unfortunately.  The network's news division is home to many excellent professionals whose work I admire, but tonight was an epic flop.  Diane Sawyer was strangely giggly.  George Stephanopolous belabored an absurd hypothetical point about the Constitutionality of banning contraception -- to the point that the audience became vocally impatient.  The local anchor from WMUR-TV at times seemed more interested in listening to his own mellifluous broadcaster's voice than anything else.  ABC's decision to devote a prime, lengthy segment to relentlessly pounding away at hot-button issue social questions was indefensible.  Twenty-five million Americans are unemployed or under-employed.  Others have given up looking for work.  Our national debt has reached 100 percent of GDP.   Entitlements are growing at a head-spinningly unsustainable rate.  Yet the journalists at ABC decided that ~15 minutes on gay rights and birth control questions was the best use of the candidates' and viewers' time.  These are complicated and not insignificant issues, of course, but they absolutely do not merit the attention they were afforded tonight.  The DNC should mail the anchors flowers for their undue and distracting attention to peripheral, contentious wedge issues that seemed tailored to make Republicans look uncaring and mean.  Also strange were the repeated non-questions posed to the candidates.  For example, one presidential hopeful would wrap up an answer, prompting Stephanopolous or Sawyer to simply turn to one of his rivals and say, "Governor?"  Several contenders simply chuckled and wondered aloud if there was an actual question being asked.  Sloppy. One final point for ABC: You have a top-flight, tough, plugged-in political correspondent named Jake Tapper.  Use him.  I'd be willing to bet that a great many Republican voters who watched tonight's telecast would rate its broadcast host as the overwhelming loser of the evening.  Too bad.  (For a chuckle, click here).


Never fear, debate aficionados: There's another contest tomorrow morning (!) on NBC at 9am ET.  Seriously, how absurd is that?  And won't many Republicans be in church?  In any case, we'll live-tweet it here on The Tipsheet.  With that housekeeping out of the way, now it's your turn to tell me where I'm right, wrong, and totally off-base in my analysis.  The comments section is open for business.  Have at it...

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Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography