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And Then There Were Two?

11:30 PM, Jan 7, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The Republican candidates did a pretty good job of making their cases tonight, given that they were dealing with questioners whose combination of bias and silliness was stunning, even by mainstream media standards.

Santorum and Romney

Where does the debate leave the race?

Rick Perry is heading toward the exits gracefully, Jon Huntsman somewhat less so. Ron Paul will stay around, but his kookiness and unpleasantness have got to be wearing thin . . . I hope.

That leaves Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum.

Newt was on good behavior, and had a great moment when he attacked the moderators—but it's hard to see how he turned his declining fortunes around.

Romney did pretty well. His high watermark was dealing with the ridiculous contraception question. This was something he couldn't have prepared for, and his series of responses gave one a (hopeful) sense that the “real” Romney is actually better than the painfully artificial and well prepared one we usually see. Indeed, when Romney went out of his way later on to offer us his well prepared vision thing, it fell flat.

Santorum did well, getting stronger as the night went on. His explanation of why he disliked Romney’s talk about the “middle class” was strong, as was his discussion of Iran and of his economic plan.

The conventional wisdom about the debate will be that no one really laid a glove on Romney, who’s allegedly cruising to the nomination unless very soon derailed, so Romney is tonight's winner.

A contrarian view would be that the key fact is that Santorum was at least Romney's equal tonight. By holding his own in the first debate in which he's been center stage, Santorum has laid the groundwork for continuing to make his case to undecided voters who've not previously taken a serious look at him (particularly in states after New Hampshire, where there will be fewer already committed Romney supporters).

So if Santorum has begun to establish a more-or-less equal stature to Romney, and if  that leads voters to give his message a hearing, he may be tonight’s winner. Because Santorum's more pointed, values-infused, Middle American-type narrative may well turn out to be more compelling than Romney's generic Republican “vision.”

But of course there’s another debate tomorrow morning, so consider this analysis good for only the next nine hours. 

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