The debate was into the second hour, and Mitt Romney had just played the Arlen Specter card against Rick Santorum, blaming Santorum's 2004 endorsement of his fellow Pennsylvanian for the passage of Obamacare in 2010. Santorum responded by playing the Dukakis card against Romney.
"Yes governor, you balanced the budget for four years," Santorum told Romney during the Arizona debate televised by CNN. "You have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget for four years. No great shakes. I'm all for -- I'd like to see it federally. But don't go around bragging about something you have to do. Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don't think so."
As highlights go, it wasn't spectacular, but Wednesday's debate -- the 20th nationally televised meeting of Republican candidates during this long campaign -- was generally lacking in highlights. There were no dramatic gaffes or stumbles, and few memorable zingers. While the commentators on CNN afterwards offered their own "what did it mean" analyses, it is unlikely that the debate changed many minds.
Newt Gingrich had arguably the best performance of the four finalists for the Republican nomination. CNN's moderator John King was booed when he asked a question submitted by a viewer online: "Since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?" This prompted Gingrich to lecture that "not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. … If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans."
The Republican audience in the Mesa Arts Center applauded, but the same "elite media" which ignored Obama's record four years ago are also unlikely to make much of Gingrich's strong debate performance. Gingrich thus did not "win" Wednesday's debate in the same sense that he won the two debates that preceded the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. Nor did any of the candidates "lose" Wednesday in the same sense that Gingrich lost the two debates preceding the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
After Wednesday's debate, CNN commentators tried to make the case that, because Santorum was not the clear winner, therefore Romney "won." However, Santorum was all smiles in his post-debate interview with the network's Gloria Borger, evidently feeling that, by not losing, he had scored a victory. It was Santorum's first debate since he moved to the top of national polls following his Feb. 7 triple victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. According to the well-established precedent of this campaign cycle, whenever any non-Romney GOP candidate eclipses the former Massachusetts governor in the polls, he either stumbles in debates (Rick Perry), is devastated by scandal (Herman Cain) or is buried in attack ads by Romney, which was the fate suffered twice by Gingrich, first in Iowa and then again in Florida. Santorum committed no Perry-esque gaffes in Wednesday's debate and seems unlikely to suffer a Cain-like scandal, which probably means that the Republican campaign from here out will be shaped less by TV debates than by TV advertising. And to secure the money necessary to fight Romney's well-funded campaign in the ad wars, Santorum will be in Texas today for three fund-raising events before returning to the campaign trail Friday in Michigan, scene of next Tuesday's closely-watched primary.
Last night's anti-climactic debate may, in fact, be the last GOP debate of the 2012 campaign. A scheduled March 1 debate in Atlanta was canceled after Romney pulled out. Another debate is scheduled March 19 in Portland, Ore., but Romney has not yet agreed to participate in that event and would probably only do so if it suits the interests of his own campaign. If Romney can win Michigan and Arizona next Tuesday, then leverage that momentum to do well in the "Super Tuesday" primaries March 6, it is difficult to see why he would give his rivals another shot at him in a TV debate. If Romney should then go on to clinch the nomination, some cynics will look back on the long series of debates and wonder whether it was all just a charade, a stage-managed TV show designed to create an illusion of excitement on the way to the predictable coronation of the Republican establishment's favorite.