I wasn’t impressed with Rick Santorum’s debate performance last night but it appears that I am in the minority.
Santorum has won praise from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, the Director of Debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Rich Lowry (who also praised Newt which I’m sure pained him greatly) and, of course, our own Quin Hillyer. Yet I suspect that Quin would have praised Santorum’s debate performance if he had come out dressed up as a construction worker, sporting a mustache and led the crowd in singing, “Y.M.C.A.”
The big loser: Rick Santorum, whose insufferably sanctimonious demeanor answered all questions about why social conservatives have begun to coalesce around Newt Gingrich rather than the former Pennsylvania senator. His decision to issue smug, full-bore attacks on every one of his rivals backfired badly. He ended up playing the role of skunk at the garden party, more eager to snicker at opponents than to make an emotional connection with the electorate. Any chance for Santorum to reverse recently plummeting poll numbers vanished with this debate. Paul, as always, made clear that he cared most about his small-government ideals and advancing his notion of constitutionalism; Romney and Gingrich showed a near-obsessive (and appropriate) focusing on defeating Obama; but Santorum concentrated on showing that his fellow contenders didn’t count as “conviction conservatives” and that he boasted the purest record of them all.
The public doesn’t care primarily about finding the “true conservative”; the people want somebody who can come to Washington to clean house, to fix the mess, and to get the government functioning more acceptably again. As decent and admirable as he may be, that somebody won’t be Rick Santorum.
Let me put it this way. If Newt Gingrich were to be kidnapped by martians between now and tomorrow and it were down to three, I find Santorum infinitely preferable to Romney and Paul. Yet he can be annoying even when I agree with what he has to say. Indeed, Santorum had some salient points about Romneycare especially where it concerned wait times. But if it’s not OK for Romney to support an individual mandate at the state level and not the federal level then why is it OK for Santorum to support federal right to work legislation but oppose it in his own backyard?
So why wouldn’t Santorum just say he’ll release his tax returns the day after the debate? I’m not sure what was weirder. That Rick Santorum said his tax return was on his computer at home and that he wasn’t at home or that he said so in a Southern accent. And what was with the whispering into the microphone?
At the risk of agreeing with Ron Paul, Santorum was being “overly sensitive” about his criticisms of federal funds to hospitals which could be used for abortion instead of more conventional birth control methods. I thought Paul’s intended target was Newt, not Santorum. Paul made Santorum look silly when he said, “I wasn’t even thinking of you.”
But even if most people who watched the debate thought Santorum did well, it won’t necessarily translate into votes. The latest Real Clear Politics average has him in fourth place at 11.2% trailing Paul by 2.2.% and I would be surprised if that will change much between now and Saturday. If Santorum is going to surge again, he pretty much has to do it now. And by now I mean right now.