I haven’t written recaps of each GOP presidential debate this cycle, but I do have a few thoughts about last night’s, which may have been the last one with these four candidates.
Rick Santorum had a tough night. He appeared aware that he would be attacked, but his answers didn’t always impress. While he deemed his support of the No Child Left Behind law as a mistake he made under pressure from his party because “politics is a team sport” — a sentiment seemingly at odds with his earlier one-word description for himself, “courage” — he gave a lengthy defense of congressional earmarks. There is a case to be made for earmarks: It holds that they allow Congress to preserve more power of the purse rather than yielding more decisions to the executive branch. Even Ron Paul makes this defense. But defending earmarks is a bad spot for anyone in the tea party era, and it’s especially bad for Santroum because it also serves as a reminder that he was in Congress at a time when Republicans were falling off the small-government wagon. That said, I don’t think it was so bad as to have a large effect on his chances in the Arizona or Michigan primaries next week.
Mitt Romney fared better, and it helped his appearance to the TV audience that so many people in the live audience were his supporters. But Santorum landed a good blow on him by observing that even Michael Dukakis had balanced the Massachusetts budget because the state’s constitution requires it. And his attack on Santorum for endorsing Arlen Specter over conservative stalwart Pat Toomey in a 2004 U.S. senate race (as did most of the rest of the GOP establishment at the time) had the unfortunate effect of ensuring Specter’s name was being invoked when Barack Obama’s name could have been. That’s a loss for Republicans.
What about Newt Gingrich? He was back on his game, coming off as knowledgeable, focused and ready to defend conservatism. And he did so without attacking the moderator or, for the most part, the media. But at this point, do debate performances continue to move the needle for Gingrich? Like his divorces and some of his missteps as Speaker, good performances in debates are baked into the cake for him. At this point, that cake is valued at third place by the GOP primary electorate. He wasn’t good enough Wednesday night to surpass expectations, so I have a hard time seeing how the debate spurs him very far upward.
Ron Paul was Ron Paul, maybe a little more appealingly so than at other times. But while his foreign policy stance might help push the party away from military adventurism, it’s not going to be adopted wholesale by Republicans anytime soon. And that pretty much counts him put as a potential nominee.
How did y’all see things? Those of you who watched, that is…
– By Kyle Wingfield