Thursday, January 26, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 26th?

In tonight's debate, Newt Gingrich needed a knock-out performance. Instead, he was K.O.'d by Mitt Romney, who overwhelmingly won the debate. If Romney wins the Republican nomination for president, many will look back on this debate and say this was the night when Romney's victory was sealed.

Time and again, Romney engaged in one-on-one exchanges with Gingrich. Time and again, Romney trounced him. The crowd in the audience hall repeatedly cheered Romney during these exchanges and were almost mute to Gingrich's responses. It's ironic, considering Gingrich was the one who insisted that the audience be allowed to react. Maybe he expected to be given standing ovations, but instead the audience was firmly in Romney's corner.

From the start, Romney took control of the debate. The moderator asked Gingrich to explain his attack ad portraying Romney as "the most anti-immigrant candidate" in the race. Gingrich, who had been scolded by Senator Marco Rubio earlier in the week and forced to stop running the ad, tried to defend himself. Romney launched into a powerful attack against Gingrich, repeating Rubio's criticisms of the ad. Romney went on to bolster his argument that he is pro-legal immigration. Gingrich shrank.

Shortly afterward, Gingrich went on the offensive, attacking Romney for having stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But Romney slammed Gingrich by revealing that Gingrich, too, had investments with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gingrich seemed more surprised than anyone.

Next, when Gingrich criticized Romney's use of a Swiss bank account, Romney counter-punched with a defense of capitalism. Once again, Romney received huge applause from the crowd. Gingrich seemed unsure how to respond.

Finally, after Gingrich attempted to defend his advocacy for a lunar colony, Romney attacked Gingrich for pandering by offering a list of the ways Gingrich had made promises to the different states he campaigned in; Romney framed this as a criticism of Gingrich promising big spending.

Rick Santorum also did well in the debate. He largely avoided attacking other candidates, but he did get into an extended battle with Romney over Romneycare. Romney certainly didn't dominate the exchange as he did during his duels with Gingrich. It was a draw, with an advantage to Santorum for putting Romney on the defensive. But it also gave Romney the opportunity to contrast Obamacare and repeatedly insist that as president he will repeal Obamacare.

What will the result of this debate be? Gingrich was shattered. Many political observers will be surprised by Romney's strong performance--or by Gingrich's poor debating skills. But this was the scenario that Elephant Watcher described on Sunday, and anticipated back in December: Gingrich hasn't been great in one-on-one exchanges, and when Romney has tangled with Gingrich, Romney has usually gotten the better of it. Having been forced to go on the offensive, Romney now appears as a stronger, more confident candidate. He had no choice but to prove Gingrich was not the debating champion he pretended to be. Now many Republican pundits will say they finally saw the fire and passion in Romney that they had been waiting for.

And as described in Sunday's preview of the week's debates, this undermines Gingrich's campaign in devastating fashion. Gingrich based his candidacy around the idea that he was the man who would be best able to debate Barack Obama. Having lost so badly to Romney, how can Gingrich make that argument convincingly?

Santorum also did a better job in the debate than Gingrich. Since the Anti-Romney vote coalesced dramatically behind Gingrich in South Carolina, Santorum's numbers have dropped precipitously. Normally, at this point, they would drop even further, as the polls show Gingrich is much closer to Romney in Florida. But this debate will make it much more difficult for Santorum supporters to get behind Gingrich. If anything, it should make some of Santorum's old supporters want to come back. But it is simply too late for the Gingrich vote to shift entirely in favor of a different Anti-Romney. Voting is on Tuesday. At most, a shift would only split the Anti-Romney vote and increase Romney's margin of victory.