Kate will have a full debate recap up shortly, but here are a few of my instant reactions to tonight's affair in Tampa. Overall, I found the debate dull and not especially substantive. NBC's Brian Williams chose to go all "process"in the first 30-plus minutes of the debate, asking the candidates about each other's weaknesses and dwelling on horserace drama. Once policy finally was raised, we heard lots of hypotheticals (What if Fidel Castro died? What if China did this? What if Iran did that?), and some real head-scratchers (Terri Shiavo for five minutes?). By my count, the word "jobs" was uttered for the first time 41 minutes into the program, when Mitt Romney raised up the topic of employment. I don't see this debate as much of a game-changer in any direction, but I did glean a handful of takeaways:
Mitt Romney won the terse exchange with Newt Gingrich over Freddie Mac and influence peddling. Newt was dancing pretty effectively until Romney pinned him down on lobbying members of Congress to support Medicare Part D while being paid large sums of money by an industry (big Pharma) who stood to gain massively from it. The Examiner's Tim Carney has written about this issue extensively, and apparently someone on Team Romney has been paying attention. Romney didn't win tonight's debate -- there was no clear winner, I'd say -- but he stopped the bleeding from his last two outings, and put Newt on the defensive with some aggressive challenges early on.
Rick Santorum delivered one hell of a scathing indictment of both Romney and Gingrich's records in a succinct and powerful answer. Unfortunately for him, it came in the closing minutes of the debate, when even political junkies were contemplating packing it in for the night. He said that his competitors have both been on the wrong side of healthcare, cap & trade, and bailouts -- some of the issues that first animated the tea party. I wonder if the Santorum camp can cut that response down and incorporate it into an ad. (Video HERE).
Newt Gingrich, despite getting ruffled early, once again showed why he's such a good debater: he's quick on his feet. Newt fielded three "gotcha" questions deftly. When Brian Williams asked him about the public's appetite for war with Iran (subtext: you guys are war-mongers), Newt explained that Americans are never eager to go to war. We're not a bellicose, bloodthirsty nation. But we are prepared to do what's necessary to preserve our security and national interests. Later, another anchor flatly asked why the Bush tax cuts "didn't work." Newt turned the premise around, though it would have been nice if he'd had some of these stats handy. He also gave a very savvy answer on why english should be the official national language while defending his decision to advertise with some spanish language ads (one of the moderators had ludicrously implied that this was hypocritical). Phil Klein observed that Newt seemed a little sluggish, perhaps because NBC asked the audience not to applaud or boo, in order to fit in more questions. Gingrich feeds off of audiences' energy, so the participation moratorium hurt him. Then again, if he's the nominee, there's generally no hooting and cheering permitted during general election debates. (While we're on the subject, here's my piece on Newt and general election debates from earlier).
Ron Paul said two things that stuck with me tonight. First, he said he had "no plans" or "intention" to run third party if he loses the GOP nominating contest. Second, he did an excellent job pointing out that the government -- through social engineering like the CRA -- caused the housing bubble and subsequent burst.
Let not your hearts be troubled, debateaholics: Despite tonight's lackluster showing, there's another chance to get your fix on Thursday evening, when I'll lead our team coverage from Jacksonville. Parting thought: How do you pronounce "fast and furious" in mainstream media-ese?
UPDATE - Team Newt gets the laugh of the night. They've blasted out an email to reporters entitled, "Mitt Romney's Top Conservative Achievements." The email is blank.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography