Thursday, January 19, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 19th?

Tonight's debate was unlike any of the previous ones. As the night wore on, it increasingly resembled kind of a political version of a war crimes tribunal: Rick Santorum was the chief prosecutor, and the other three candidates were in the dock. Santorum repeatedly challenged the conservative credentials of his foes, particularly Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. They then defended themselves, but they didn't bother to counter-attack Santorum on his own credentials. As a result, Santorum was always on the offensive, which is a good thing in a debate, because the burden remains on the defender. At best, the defenders didn't get scored against; at worst, they lost points.

Clearly, Santorum was in the spotlight, and had opportunities to display his confidence and rhetorical skill. On some issues, Gingrich and Romney defended themselves well: Romney was particularly effective in defending his pro-life record as governor. On other issues, Santorum may have scored points. Romney vigorously defended himself against the attacks on Romneycare--this time one of his opponents had done research on it--but he may have lost points. Gingrich did not defend his own support of the individual mandate very well.

But the central issue facing Santorum is that his numbers have been in free fall. Voters seeking an alternative to Romney have seen Gingrich well ahead of Santorum in the polls, and they have been defecting from Santorum in large numbers. Can a strong debate performance by Santorum reverse that? It's too late. The only question is to what extent Santorum can staunch the bleeding. He may be aided by the Gingrich ex-wife scandal, but its effect cannot yet be measured.

In fact, the debate moderator decided to open the debate by asking Gingrich about the allegations made by his second ex-wife that Gingrich had asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich was in top form as he denounced CNN for opening a presidential debate in such a way. The crowd rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation as he vented long-felt frustrations that conservatives have about the liberal media. Gingrich has frequently criticized moderators in past debates, and this one served as a perfect target.

...On the other hand, one can't help but remember how the debate audience also cheered Herman Cain when he denied his own sex scandal during a debate. They applauded Cain, and a few weeks later they completely abandoned him.

Otherwise, Gingrich was fairly unremarkable. Aside from his standout moment at the beginning of the debate, it was probably one of his weaker performances.

Romney's performance was mixed. Frequently, Romney was strong, and he served red meat to the base in defending capitalism and free enterprise. He easily waved aside questions about Bain Capital, and his opponents saw fit to the let the matter rest. Romney was weaker when asked about releasing his tax returns. At first, it seemed that Romney would get a pass: Of the four candidates on stage, only Gingrich had released his returns. Ron Paul and Santorum expressed no plans to release theirs, and Romney said he would release his in April. But when the moderator asked Romney if he would follow in his father's footsteps by releasing many years' worth of returns, Romney was taken by surprise, answering, "Maybe." He was evasive, and the moment may ruin an otherwise solid night for him, as it presents an interesting sound-bite for the media to replay.