Mitt Romney was off his game tonight, more awkward and unprepared than I’ve seen him during this campaign. But I’m not sure the most effective attacks by his opponents are the kind that will net them votes. Rick Santorum clearly got the best of Romney in their exchange over felon voting rights. But is endorsing felon voting rights really a way to win votes in a South Carolina Republican primary? Santorum did have some nice moments casting a compassionate conservatism that is more compatible with libertarianism than what we saw in the Bush years.
Newt Gingrich had perhaps his best debate in weeks, really winning over the crowd in his sure-to-be-much discussed back-and-forth with Juan Williams. But isn’t clear that his “I’m just raising questions and/or toughening Mitt up for the general” defense of his Bain attacks will persuade many people not already so inclined. Rick Perry was solid as well, though at 5 percent in the polls with just days to go before the primary it could be too little, too late.
Ron Paul didn’t have a very good debate tonight. His process-oriented answer on the killing of Osama bin Laden was a disaster. The debate needed an effective contrast with the chest-beating that passed for the other candidates’ foreign policy answers, but Paul’s answers were more muddled than usual. It could make a difference, since he is in position for another top three finish but is polling very close to Santorum.
We only have a few more days to look at poll results to tell whether any of this will matter. There is a second debate later this week.