There has been one common theme in the Republican presidential debates this year: when a candidate appears to have things well in hand, they suddenly turn in their worst debate performance. It happened to Mitt Romney in South Carolina after his New Hampshire primary victory. It happened to Newt Gingrich after winning South Carolina heading into Florida. It happened to Rick Perry repeatedly after taking the national lead.
Tonight in Mesa, Arizona, Rick Santorum had his worst debate performance of the campaign. What impact it will have, I don’t know. But he was in striking distance of defeating Romney in both Michigan and Arizona. He did little that will aid that goal in the CNN debate. Santorum’s team player answer on No Child Left Behind was the classic go-along-to-get-along Republicanism that tends to cause government to grow even when the GOP holds power. It also undermined Santorum’s image as someone who follows his principles no matter what. Santorum did poorly in the earmarks exchange and, though he handled himself well in the Arlen Specter endorsement question, got into a lot of Senate process. In my view, he lost the family planning funding dispute with Ron Paul.
Gingrich came back to life with a strong debate performance. John King must be his favorite moderator. The former speaker was once again able to praise his rivals on the issues where they are most popular with the Republican base and position himself against the media. Romney didn’t score any knockout blows, but he had a solid performance. Paul tried to make his position on Iran less radioactive to primary voters by emphasizing his plea that Congress actually vote on and declare war, but it did not satisfy the hawks’ appetites.