I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.
It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.
A case in point: The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports this:
Rick Santorum suspects something is up between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Santorum had a tough night at the 20th, and likely last, Republican debate, held here at the Mesa Arts Center. He took a lot of attacks from Romney and a few from Paul, and he noticed that Paul and Romney didn’t seem to go after each other. When it was all over, and Santorum met reporters, he didn’t try to hide what he was thinking.
“You have to ask Congressman Paul and Gov. Romney what they’ve got going together,” Santorum said. “Their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.”
“They’ve got something going on?” a reporter asked Santorum.
“You tell me,” Santorum said.
That’s an unfortunate thing for Santorum to say. The reason he did poorly was that fairly or not, Romney in particular nailed him to the “Washington Insider” mast, forcing Santorum to explain his votes on earmarks, Title X, No Child Left Behind, and his support for Arlen Specter. By the time the debate was done, Santorum came across as a typical rather than as a conviction politician. The post-debate hints of Romney-Paul coordination and conspiracy aren’t terribly credible — and even if they were, (a) it wouldn’t be inappropriate and (b) Santorum shouldn’t be the person dropping the hints.
We saw a slightly different version of this happen with Newt Gingrich, who was also pinned to the mat by Romney in a key couple of debates.
If the former Massachusetts governor is the Republican nominee, the ability to frustrate an opponent to the point that they slip up and begin to whine may well come in handy against President Obama in the fall, as Obama is unusually arrogant and thin skinned. If Mitt Romney can do to him what he’s succeeded in doing to Gingrich and Santorum, it can only help his chances of becoming our next president.