Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had perhaps his best debate last night in Jacksonville. He was, for the most part, forceful and in command. He damaged his main rival, Newt Gingrich, on answers ranging from immigration to Gingrich’s investment portfolio. And Romney was particularly strong at turning the tables on the attacks on his wealth, saying this:

And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that [Romney’s wealth and investments], as you have publicly. But look, I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money. I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40 percent. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.

This answer reframes the issue of Romney’s success, away from a defensive, apologetic stance to a confident, assertive one. It also helped that Romney was right on the substance. It is quite important to push back against the mindset that assumes success and excellence are things for which one ought to apologize. I understand that many modern-day liberals believe people who are wealthy are by definition of a suspect class (unless, say, their wealth comes via Hollywood). The task of the rest of us is to shatter that myth, which is not only wrong but can also be pernicious. Governor Romney, I think, did a very good job explaining why achievement in business is, in fact, impressive (it’s often the result of hard work, persistence, creativity and drive) and an asset to America. This is a theme Romney needs to continue to build on. Rather than accept the premise of the attack, he decided to shred it.

The best answer of the night in terms of political philosophy, however, belongs to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (who was excellent in the debate from beginning to end). When the candidates were asked by a Jacksonville resident what role religious beliefs would play in decisions they might make as president, Santorum said this:

Faith is a very, very important part of my life, but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country — everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the “how” of America. It’s the operator’s manual. The “why” of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Constitution is there to do one thing: protect God-given rights. That’s what makes America different than every other country in the world. No other country in the world has its rights — rights based in God-given rights, not government-given rights. And so when you say, well, faith has nothing to do with it, faith has everything to do with it. If rights come… (applause) if our president believes that rights come to us from the state, everything government gives you, it can take away. The role of the government is to protect rights that cannot be taken away. And so the answer to that question is, I believe in faith and reason and approaching the problems of this country but understand where those rights come from, who we are as Americans and the foundational principles by which we have changed the world.

This is a wonderful articulation of America’s founding principle and a nice corrective to those conservatives who tend to focus only on the Constitution at the expense of the document (the Declaration of Independence) that dealt a crushing philosophical blow to tyranny and despotism.

In our time, it’s common for people to argue that religion is a source of political intolerance, and of course it can be. But it can also be a source of political tolerance precisely because it provides a firm grounding for human rights and a belief in human dignity. What Rick Santorum did last night was give voice to what Lincoln called our “ancient faith.”

There have been a lot of complaints made about the number of debates we’ve had in the GOP primary, and it’s certainly true that not all of them have been edifying affairs. But last night was an encouraging one for those of us who care about conservatism, if only because on several occasions we saw candidates for president dilate on important political principles.