The debate may well have been won and lost in the opening minutes. CNN’s John King asked the first question about Marianne Gingrich’s statement that Newt Gingrich, her former husband, had wanted an open marriage. Then Gingrich did what he does best: he went after the moderator, getting a standing ovation in the process.
Gingrich may not have been as effective after the fact, but who knows how many people will notice. Rick Santorum had his strongest debate yet. He was more effective in going after Mitt Romney on health care than anybody has been in the debates so far. He also had some good moments going after the defects in Newt Gingrich’s congressional record, speaking to the self-promotion that at times led Gingrich to undermine conservative goals. That is storming Fort Gingrich at its strongest point.
Romney had another weak debate. Although the discussion went on far too long, it is clear that his position on releasing his tax returns won’t hold water. His justifications for his Massachusetts health care plan were similarly problematic and he used the term “Romneycare” for, as far as I know, the first time. Anytime Romney has to defend his abortion stance at length, it is probably a bad thing.
The moderators did their best to ignore Ron Paul. Paul’s supporters in the audience protested loudly when the moderator bypassed their candidate — a pro-life ob-gyn who has delivered over 4,000 babies — during the abortion discussion. King relented, allowing Paul to talk about an issue where he in principle agrees with the Republican base. There was no discussion of foreign policy to highlight Paul’s differences with the GOP rank-and-file.
Two big questions: Will Gingrich’s forceful response to King — whom he later described as doing a good job as moderator — overshadow anything else that happened? And was Santorum’s performance strong enough to convince a critical mass of conservatives to support him rather than coalesce behind Gingrich? We’ll soon see.
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