The general view about last night's debate is that Rick Santorum didn't do well. Rich Lowry put it best: Santorum spent too much time "explaining why he voted for things he opposed (NCLB, Title X)," got "tangled up in his Senate record," and was in general "too defensive, too insider, too complicated."
That view could well be right. One could say on Santorum's behalf that he did voters the courtesy of assuming they might want to hear a substantive explanation of his votes when criticized and a defense of his record when under attack. Still, Santorum didn't follow the normal advice most political types would have given—don't be backward looking, don't play defense, pivot to making your own arguments, go on the attack, make sure Romneycare is discussed more than earmarks—and he may pay a price for being a little too unpolished, a little too earnest.
Or not. This year has been so far from "normal" that maybe voters will look beyond style points and even debating skills to substance. In which case, Santorum did well. He was strong on foreign policy, especially on Iran, effective in his defense of religious liberty, and effective in his defense of his focus on family structure and family breakup.
Romney was strong on these issues, too, as a matter of fact. But what's struck me about the commentary on the debate is how much of it is about Santorum. Commentators—and voters—seem to be either lukewarm or lukecool about Romney. But no one seems to be paying much attention to him anymore. His own campaign doesn't pay much attention to him, since they spend most of their time attacking Santorum. Is anyone—even his own campaign—really that interested in the Romney economic plan? Fairly or unfairly, it's now all about Santorum. He's gone from a 1 percent candidate two months ago to the center of gravity in the Republican race.
I suspect Santorum's fate may come down to voters' judgment of this statement, from his impressive account last night of the costs and consequences of family breakup:
We can have limited government, lower tax—we hear this all the time, cut spending, limit the government, everything will be fine. No, everything's not going to be fine. There are bigger problems at stake in America. And someone has got to go out there—I will—and talk about the things.
"No, everything's not going to be fine." If you don't agree with Santorum's refusal simply to put economics first, you're unlikely to be for him. If you do agree with him (and I suspect a majority of Republican primary voters do), you're likely to be impressed by Santorum's courage and candor. But the question then becomes, is it prudent for a presidential candidate to say what Santorum said, to emphasize what Santorum emphasizes?
Or, to put it another way: Probably the two most courageous and candid Republican presidential candidates—the two most courageous conservative leaders—in modern times were Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Republican primary voters will have to decide this: Politically speaking, in a general election, is Santorum likely to be Goldwater? Or Reagan?