Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on February 22nd?

Going into tonight's debate, Rick Santorum had the most to lose. As we have discussed before, Santorum's surge this month was similar to the other surges that took place this primary season: It was based on voters giving a new candidate the benefit of the doubt and assuming he was a perfect conservative. Thus, Santorum's goal was to protect his image of being an unblemished Tea Partier. But Santorum took a lot of hits during the debate. For the first time, he was cross-examined by his opponents. Santorum lost the debate because the attacks used against him were new to most voters, and they will do damage. By contrast, Mitt Romney took few hits, and those he received were old news, so they will have little impact. Romney won the debate.

That's not to say Santorum did a terrible job. He was not eviscerated by Romney the way Newt Gingrich was in the pre-Florida debate. Santorum appeared intelligent, sincere, and passionate. He was capable of going head-to-head with Romney. Santorum also had the good fortune of not being painted as a religious extremist by the moderator. But Santorum was repeatedly forced into the position of defending or excusing un-conservative actions he took as a senator. All of this will be news to the Tea Partiers watching the debate. Meanwhile, Santorum was not able to break any new ground against Romney.

Romney and Gingrich both did well in the debate. Gingrich chose to return to his old pattern of being positive and not going on the attack against other candidates. Gingrich's answers were good, but since he is no longer in the running, any strength he has simply benefits Romney by undermining Santorum. Romney spent most of his time bolstering his own conservative credentials by reciting specific actions he took as governor of Massachusetts and attacking Barack Obama.

Ron Paul decided to make himself relevant in the debate by repeatedly attacking Santorum for not being conservative enough. Paul concentrated all of his fire on Santorum. Much of the time, Santorum defended himself well, but he still took some damage. That's the problem with being on the defensive.

There were no extraordinary gaffes or stand-out moments in the debate. The crowd was clearly pro-Romney; they applauded and cheered Romney's responses and at one point even booed Santorum, when Santorum was making an excuse for having voted for an appropriations bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood. The most memorable moments of the debate, such as that one, tended to involve Santorum being forced into a corner. Santorum felt compelled to defend his earmarks as senator. As senator he also supported "No Child Left Behind" and had to admit that it was a mistake. Worse, he said that he only did it because he had to "go along" with the team. Romney criticized Santorum for supporting Arlen Specter, a "RINO" senator who voted for Obamacare; Santorum defended Specter at length.

Santorum did not appear unelectable, but at times it appeared that he was running to the left of Romney. Since Santorum's entire candidacy is based on being the conservative alternative to Romney (i.e. being to the right of Romney and Gingrich), it was a bad night for Santorum.