The good news for everyone—candidates, voters, viewers, press—is that we get to do this all over again in 12 hours. Because that makes sense. So let’s go to the videotape.
Mitt Romney: Possibly his best debate. Thanks to the moderators, Romney bore almost no scrutiny on his problematic issues. And for all the talk about how tonight was going to be a Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bloodsport-style throwdown, the lower tier candidates mostly fought amongst themselves: Huntsman vs. Perry and Santorum on Afghanistan; Newt vs. Paul on “chickenhawk”; the moderators vs. Santorum on gay marriage.
But all that aside, Romney did himself a world of good with his answer on the (bizarre) contraception question. He was funny and commonsensical and deft. The most unscripted and charming he’s been in any of the debates. “It’s working just fine, leave it alone!” He even showed some comic timing. Who wouldn’t want to vote for that guy?
Rick Santorum: Absolutely rose to the occasion. Forceful, but at ease. Pugnacious, but good humored. A really strong performance. Even better, he had solid, compelling answers for the incoming attacks on his Senate tenure and post-Senate lobbying. “If you haven’t bee sued by CREW, you’re not a conservative.” And his point about “classes” in America was very well made.
From a strategic standpoint, it’s tough to know how successful he was. He certainly cemented his status as a plausible alternative to Romney. He did not do anything to peel off Romney’s New Hampshire support, or change the dynamic of the race here. What he did do, however, was begin to lay an important predicate for differentiating himself in South Carolina: The difference between a CEO/manager and a commander in chief. This could bear fruit in South Carolina.
Ron Paul: It’s not immediately clear why Paul was focused on going after Santorum. He must believe that Santorum’s support isn’t conservative, but rather “Not Romney” in its basis, and that he can win some of those voters. That strikes me as a miscalculation—to the extent that Paul has any path ahead in the race, he simply needs to peel support away from Romney, regardless of where it goes.
I suspect Paul’s supporters loved his performance. He took shots at Santorum, skewered Newt on anti-war grounds, and talked about legalizing pot. That alone should get him hundreds more votes from students at the University of New Hampshire.
Newt Gingrich: He walked directly into a trap that Paul laid about draft deferments. There’s no earthly reason the chickenhawk stuff should matter—exactly which wars did New Gingrich push for?—but that exchange was brutal. It’s not often you hear three seconds of stunned silence after an answer.
But redeems himself with anti-Catholic and anti-Christian bias—he seizes the opening and drives a truck through it. Vintage Newt.
That said, viewers standing around chanting Kumite! Kumite! Kumite! before the debate started were disappointed. Evil Newt never showed up. Oh well. There’s always tomorrow.
Rick Perry: It’s a shame that Perry’s strongest debate came the week after his campaign died. If he had sounded like this (and thought through his immigration problem) at launch, then this race would be entirely different.
Jon Huntsman: The good news for Huntsman is that today he picked up his first congressional endorsement. Rep. Richard Hanna, come on down! Apparently, Hanna had been on the fence for the last few months, but finally decided that the best time to endorse Huntsman was four days before he drops out. The Huntsman campaign: counterintuitive right up to the end.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.