Tonight marked the 20th, and possibly last, televised debate among Republican candidates for president of the 2012 cycle. On the whole, it wasn't an especially inspiring or memorable event, but because it was the final opportunity for each candidate to distinguish himself in this sort of setting (at least before Super Tuesday), the stakes were high. My analysis of how each contender performed:
Newt Gingrich won the debate, vindicating his team's "let Newt be Newt" strategy. Gone was the angry, embittered former Speaker. Sneering Newt was repealed and replaced by supportive, "cheerful" Newt -- eager to agree with his opponents when they were right, politely pushing back only when necessary, and tenacious in his determination to steer most discussions into critiques of President Obama. His first crack at John King's contraception question was the best offering of anyone on the subject. On occasion, Gingrich exhibits a special capacity to make conservatives -- even those who may not support him -- stand up and cheer. One such moment came during that response, when he lambasted the media's propensity to ask questions designed to make Republicans look like social extremists. He noted that Barack Obama never once fielded a tough challenge on his shameful opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act in Illinois (and his subsequent lies) during his litany of 2008 debates. A brilliant point. Newt also delivered the clearest and most forceful answer on the auto bailouts. Not every answer was perfect, of course. At the end of a fairly solid soliloquy on foreign policy, Gingrich said that America's enemies were "secure" under President Obama. The line drew applause, but if he'd made that claim in a general election debate, Obama would have offered a very efffective rejoinder along the lines of, "you'll have to ask Osama Bin Laden about that last statement." I'd also add that promising specific gas prices is a very risky endeavor for any political candidate. Overall, though, a strong night for Newt. Impressive.
Mitt Romney was, as ever, steady and serious throughout the evening; he didn't piece together his finest debate of the cycle, but he did just fine. As expected, he made many appeals to executive leadership, regularly listing his accomplishments in the private sector, his leadership in turning around the 2002 Olympics, and his tenure in the Massachusetts governorship. At times, his answers seemed rote and forced, but they delivered the messages he wanted to convey. His strongest moments came in the first round of responses to the "birth control" controversy, and during the foreign policy segment, when he came across as deeply prepared and presidential. Although he resorted to the lame debt ceiling attack against Rick Santorum, Romney managed to knock his top challenger off balance during the debate's opening round, a scrap from which Santorum never seemed to fully recover. The former governor also missed a big opportunity on the very first question of the night, which was about the national debt. Unlike some of the other candidates -- and certainly unlike Barack Obama -- Romney has a bona fide entitlement reform plan. He should have mentioned it. That being said, he did a decent job of incorporating his newly-released tax reform package into an answer or two, winning kudos from Gingrich. One answer that is still bothering me was Romney's response to the challenge that he'd implemented a similar conscience-violating mandate regarding the morning after pill for rape victims in Massachusetts. Romney flatly denied the whole thing, which wasn't entirely truthful (the complicated facts are laid out nicely in this NRO report). All in all, Romney did nothing to disturb his upward trajectory in the Michigan and Arizona polls.
Rick Santorum was tonight's clear loser. Although he offered a few flashes of excellence, Santorum's stumbling illustrated the perils of running for president with decades of Congressional votes hanging around your neck. The former Senator was forced to explain and defend his support for earmarks (Paul and Gingrich did a better job of this), his decision to endorse Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2004 (his justification delved into a discussion of the intricacies of Senate Judicial Committee power structures -- which, while plausible, reeked of insiderdom), and most damagingly, No Child Left Behind. Regarding that vote, Santorum essentially shrugged and said he "took one for the team." For a guy who summed himself up with the word "courage," that was a startling weak moment. Rich Lowry summarized Santorum's core problem perfectly: "Rick Santorum’s night was defined by explaining why he voted for things he opposed." That's a very tough sell, and played directly into the Romney camp's "creature of Washington" narrative. Santorum's stall plus Newt's good night equals a happy Romney campaign.
Ron Paul was a devastatingly effective Romney surrogate tonight, pummelling Santorum on his go-along big-government conservatism during the Bush years. Although Romney landed a few big blows (pointing out that Arlen Specter was the 60th vote for Obama was one of them), Paul bloodied Santorum up more than anyone else. He was also less unhinged on foreign policy than usual, stressing that he opposes Iranian nukes -- that's been tough to tell at times -- making a less shrill economic argument against nation building that will appeal to a lot of voters, and underscoring the importance of gaining Congressional approval for war.
Finally, a few stray thoughts:
(1) Despite Gingrich and Romney getting things off to a good start, the birth control discussion degenerated into a maddening morass of confusion. As far as I can remember, none of the candidates clearly and unequiocally stated that Republicans do not want to ban or limit access to birth control in any way, and that any suggestion to the contrary is a red herring. Several of them did a fine job expounding on religious liberty -- the real issue at stake -- but nobody stepped up and clearly debunked the Left's false insinuations. Therefore, it was not a good five-to-ten minute stretch for the field or the party.
(2) During the excruciatingly long discussion of earmarks, three of the four candidates were openly defending the practice, and the other one (Romney) was transparently scoring cheap points off of it. Not a shining moment for Tea Party supporters, I'd imagine.
(3) We've all complained that there have been too many GOP debates. I doubt anyone, except perhaps cable news executives, would disagree. But is now the best time to stop these things? The race is extremely volatile. The vast majority of states haven't voted yet. Only four rivals remain. If anything, now might be the time when debates might actually be useful. I'm not pining for weekly boxing matches like we had for much of the fall, but zero between now and the convention? I may expand on this thought in a future post...but for now, I'll turn this show over to you. Scorecards in the comments section, please.
UPDATE - A full transcript of the debate is available HERE.