JACKSONVILLE, FL - We had two winners tonight: From a 'micro' perspective, Rick Santorum was terrific and narrowly won the evening. On a macro level, Mitt Romney came awfully close to winning the debate outright, and just owned Newt Gingrich during three dramatic exchanges. Because Newt didn't have a particularly strong showing, the political inertia stays in Romney's favor heading into Tuesday. Here's my instant review of each candidate's debate performance:
Mitt Romney - The former Massachusetts reportedly worked with a new debate coach ahead of tonight's tilt, and it showed. He was aggressive, sharp, and focused. He also repeatedly bested Newt Gingrich in direct confrontations. Early in the evening, he thumped Newt over his heinous (and subsequently pulled) "anti-immigrant" radio attack ad. It was a Democrat-style attack, and Romney smartly invoked Marco Rubio's strong statement denouncing it in jumping down Newt's throat. Newt tried to double down, and in a pronounced shift from South Carolina, the crowd turned on him. Romney finished off the exchange with an effective "eleven million grandmothers" line, mocking a Gingrich trope. He also prevailed in a second important segment, firmly defending his private sector record, refusing to apologize for his wealth, and scolding Newt for belittling his income as not really earned. Finally, while on the offensive against Newt (again, much more effective than his previous defensiveness), Romney hit the former Speaker on his lucrative connection to Freddie Mac. When Newt countered that Romney had invested in Fannie and Freddie, Mitt cooly explained the concept of a blind trust (anyone with a 401K should understand this), and pointedly remarked that Newt had done the exact same thing. Checkmate.
Other highlights included Romney's excellent answer on Israel and a very strong closing statement. There were lowlights, too. Rick Santorum dismantled him on Romneycare with persistence and precision. Romney lost the exchange and erred in saying that Santorum shouldn't get "upset" over the issue. Actually, yes he should. Yes we should. We're talking about people's lives and health -- that's deeply personal, and it matters. Did Romney sleep through the healthcare townhall meetings in 2010? Also, Romney looked silly claiming that he didn't know about an ad that he approved, and the phrase "my trustee" isn't exactly going to play with a lot of voters. As the forum wound down, National Review's Rich Lowry suggested that Romney clinched the win and probably the primary.
Newt Gingrich - The former House Speaker wasn't terrible tonight, but he came out flat in a format that usually works to his advantage. As outlined above, he lost key points to Romney and failed to harness the energy of the crowd in his favor. One significant developement came when Newt tried to defend his idea of establishing a lunar colony, even with a potential path to US statehood. All three of his rivals shot the idea down as a misplaced priority in an era of high unemployment and myriad serious problems on this planet. Gingrich parried weakly, if intriguingly, almost as if he was a professor tossing out an interesting big idea and running it up audience's flag pole. Thought-provoking? Yes. Fiscally responsible and sensible in this context? Probably not. Gingrich, of course, had several excellent answers. His Israel/Palestine response was outstanding, detailed, and persuasive -- as was his response about religious liberty in America. Religious Americans definitely sense their liberties and values are under assault by an aggressive secular minority, and Newt tapped into those feelings in a compelling way. After the debate, Red State editor Erick Erickson said on CNN that Newt "lives and dies" by the debate and stated that Newt "lost Florida tonight."
Rick Santorum - What a night for the former Pennsylvania Senator. In my view, he scored a hat trick: Focusing many of his attacks on President Obama, calling on CNN to cease asking petty non-policy questions about Romney and Gingrich (offering pleasant words about both of them), and flaying Mitt Romney on healthcare. Before the debate, I wrote that Santorum needed a breakthrough. It remains to be seen whether he achieved one, but he definitely made a very serious case that he might be the best Not Romney in the race. Santorum's focus on manufacturing and the middle class speaks to a lot of swing-state voters, and his answers about his family and faith were fantastic. But was it enough? He has a lot of polling ground to make up; it also seems intuitive that Newt would be hit hardest by a late Santorum surge.
Ron Paul - Irreconcilable foreign policy disagreements aside, Ron Paul had his best debate in months -- perhaps of the whole cycle. He was funny, quick on his feet, and even likeable throughout the evening. His bike ride challenge in response to a question about his age was pitch perfect, and his comments about his wife were endearing. On a policy level, Congressman Paul consistently used his answers to steer viewers back to an important truth: Big government often exacerbates big problems. He hammered this home on the housing crisis and the Community Reinvestment Act, and on healthcare, in response to a question from an unemployed, uninsured woman. She ended up applauding the answer, as well as the concept of repealing Obamacare.
CNN - Since I've been very critical of debate moderators in the past, I'll say that Wolf Blitzer and CNN did a respectable job tonight. Some of the questions were a bit far afield, but not nearly as leading or plainly biased as some past outings.
At the onset of the debate, I tweeted that this evening's contest could mark a truly pivotal event. Tuesday will either vindicate or confirm that assessment, but if this week's debates play the outsized role that they did in South Carolina (and barring some major unforeseen developments), I suspect Mitt Romney turned in a decisive showing tonight, and really stuck the landing. Am I right? Wrong? Totally off-base? A shameless RINO shill? Have at it in the comments section...
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