This was actually an important debate—much more so than last night’s. Not because it’s likely to alter the outcome of the New Hampshire vote—it isn’t—but because it gives us a first real glimpse of what the dynamic might be like in two weeks after the field collapses down to three or four candidates. And that dynamic is very, very different from what we’ve grown accustomed to.
Mitt Romney: Had a very tough first 10 minutes, during which he tried selling the following line: He didn’t seek reelection as governor of Massachusetts because he had accomplished everything he wanted and was ready to step away from political life. This is, on its face, absurd: Romney’s unfavorables in Massachusetts made a successful reelection run in 2006 highly unlikely. And besides, by that time he was already traveling extensively in Iowa and New Hampshire, laying the groundwork for his 2008 presidential run.
But it’s not the absurdity of the claim that hurt Romney—it’s that his straight-faced mouthing of it feeds into all the worries that he is a candidate who will say anything and can’t be trusted. Even worse, it opened up a fresh line of criticism from Santorum. (More on this in a minute.)
After that, Romney settled in and had a smooth performance. In particular, his answer on gays and discrimination was quite good. Compassionate, sensible, and firm.
Rick Santorum: In another sign of his political shrewdness, Santorum executed a bit of jiu-jitsu concerning his 2006 Senate loss. Instead of allowing it to be a liability—recall that he was crushed by moderate Democrat Bob Casey Jr.—he hung a lantern on it, using it to show that he was willing to stand and fight even when things were really tough. And then he used the loss to create direct contrast with Romney, saying that Romney bailed on Massachusetts when his numbers looked bad and wasn’t tough enough to stand for reelection, even if it meant taking one on the chin.
“We want someone who when the time gets tough—and it will in this election,” he said, will stand up for conservative principles. (It’s a variation of the line Sarah Palin would have had to reconcile with had she run.) This avenue of attack against Romney has not been previously explored and he does not (yet) have a plausible response. Santorum is becoming more, rather than less, impressive as a commodity.
Santorum then took a pretty good line against Paul, saying that the problem with him is that all the economic stuff Republicans like, he can’t do as president because he has no way to pass that policy into law. But all of Paul’s foreign policy stuff, which Republicans don’t like, he could accomplish as president, because he’d be commander in chief.
(Like Romney, he gave a great answer on the—ridiculous—question of “what have you done for gay rights lately?”)
Ron Paul: The first debate in a long while where Paul barely registered. No jousts over foreign policy. No wrangling over the Fed. Except for Santorum’s line about him, he escaped criticism. That’s all probably good for him in terms of Tuesday’s vote.
Newt Gingrich: Evil Newt arise! As Romney wriggled and squirmed during the opening and tried to pretend that he just happened to pass on running for reelect as governor, Gingrich dropped the hammer: “Can we drop the pious baloney. . . You were running for president while you were governor. . . You’ve been running consistently for years and years and years. . . Just level with the American people. . . You’ve been running since the 1990s.”
He was much less effective when he tussled with Romney over super PAC ads. It’s never been clear that it was strategically smart to get into a war over ads—the first rule of fight club is, you do not talk about fight club. It might have been better for him simply to make his own substantive criticisms rather than argue over the fairness of Romney’s attacks. I doubt he got the better of this exchange.
Rick Perry: The invisible man. Perry barely spoke and had nothing to say except to say that he’s still running as an outsider against all of those inside-Washington guys. At least he’s at the point where he can retire from the field with dignity.
Jon Huntsman: Got Romney to engage with him on his ambassadorship under Obama. That’s a tiny victory, I suppose. The big mystery of the debate is why he received so much airtime—he probably got as much as Romney and Santorum, if you put a clock on it.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.