I don’t think tonight’s campaign is going to do much to radically change te trajectory of this race. Nobody dominated, and nobody bombed. That said, I thought the following about the performance of each.
1) Newt Gingrich performed best. He didn’t dominate, didn’t rejuvenate his campaign, in fact seemed a bit irrelevant to the horse race and at times even a little bored… but because he is no longer a threat, nobody challenged him and, just as in the summer and early fall, it allowed him to play the wise man on stage. He had a number of pretty good lines, and made a lot of sense. He might get a bit of an uptick in the polls from it — but that’s all.
2) Rick Santorum had to spend far too much time defending his record on spending, his past support for No Child Left Behind, and his endorsement of Arlen Specter. Still, he did pretty well over all. As in all debates, he showed that he really knew his stuff, and he again came across as the sincere person he is. Maybe it’s worth noting two comments from my wife, who pays reasonable attention to these things because of my interest in them, but who is not at all a political animal. The other night, when she watched Santorum on Hannity, she said he took too long to get to his answers, offering too many words and talking too fast and being too hard to follow without paying close attention. So she’s perfectly willing to call them like she sees them….. Anyway, tonight, on two occasions, she said, “THAT was good.” She thought he explained earmarks well, and she thought his explanation on Specter was very strong. Conservative activists may have huge bees in their bonnets about Specter, but for most Republican voters, Specter is not well known and not important. Thus, what matters is how well Santorum explained what he did. For those voters, I think, like my wife, his answer was a net plus. Finally, it helped that Gingrich three or four times made a point of saying “Rick is right” or “I agree with Rick,” and Romney did so two or three times, including on the contraception/family/culture issue in a way that gave Santorum cover against the charge that he’s some sort of extremist.
His best line of the night was: “Just because we talk about it doesn’t mean we want a government program to fix it. That’s the difference between us and the left.”
Overall, though, Santorum neither gained nor lost ground tonight.
3) Mitt Romney was far less likeable than usual. He was a little too angry, and several times almost a jerk. (He really left a bad impression with his refusal at the end to answer John King’s question about what misperceptions people had about him — first, because the answer he was giving was boilerplate and an obvious dodge anyway, and second, because he sounded really peevish when King very politely tried to remind him what the question was.) Romney also was totally schooled by Gingrich on earmarks, and made to look like a hypocrite for requesting earmarks and then criticizing Santorum for doing so, and then trying to say that his earmarks were good but…. etcetera.
Since I’m quoting my wife tonight, it’s worth noting that she said Romney sounded “remote” from ordinary voter concerns and that “he keeps coming up with the same old lines of bull.”
On the other hand, Romney sounded like his usual competent self throughout. He still has the advantage of having an executive air about him. And somehow he came across very well when asked to describe himself in one word. When he said “resolute,” he both sounded and looked resolute.
I don’t think he gained or lost any real ground tonight.
4) Ron Paul was Ron Paul. He did nothing to help himself, especially by his continuing insistence that Iran is, in effect, no real threat. He did, however, add to the general sense that tonight was Santorum’s night to be on the hot seat, because he clearly has a thing against Santorum.
(For his part, by the way, Santorum should be doing more to make a play for Ron Paul supporters. He needs to say far more often that he agrees with Paul that the Federal Reserve has gone astray and that limiting government is a goal for its own sake, not just in order to balance the budget. He volunteered these things to me in a recent interview; he should say them more often.)
Overall,this debate was nowhere near as momentous as some earlier ones have been. Romney and Santorum both missed the chance to really grab the bull by the horns and really talk about the future and about their own positive agendas. It’ll be a close race in Michigan and Arizona because neither elevated himself above the other.