Last night’s NBC News/National Journal/Tampa Bay Times presidential debate marked the 17th time that the Republican candidates have debated. With the field of candidates narrowed to just four candidates, these debates offer each candidate plenty of opportunities to gain or lose traction.
Last night’s debate was the third in the last seven days and the first of two this week. Unlike the rambunctious crowds from South Carolina, the audience in last night’s debate was subdued. The lack of audience interaction forced those watching the debate to process the candidates’ answers instead of getting swept up by emotion. If anyone was hurt by the lack of audience participation, it was Newt Gingrich, who for the first time in any debate lacked a memorable moment.
Winners: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum
For the first time in the 2012 race for president, Mitt Romney finds himself in a place other than that of undisputed frontrunner. Romney went on the offensive in Monday night’s debate and did a good job at defining Newt Gingrich as an “influence peddler.” Romney won the exchange in large part because Gingrich chose not to engage Romney. Instead, Gingrich said he would be launching a website that corrects the inaccurate things of which Romney has accused him.
Romney played the role of the aggressor much better than I had anticipated. Romney remained calm, cool, and collected throughout the debate, even when pressing Gingrich on a number of issues. Unlike in previous debates, Romney was the one cross-examining the frontrunner, and he did a good job putting Gingrich on his heals. Romney’s best line of attack was saying that companies that lobby Congress also paid Gingrich. This takes away Newt’s defense that he didn’t fall within the strict legal definition of a lobbyist. But if you look at the facts of what Newt actually did for this money, it looks an awful lot like lobbying.
For almost a week, Santorum has had to defend his ongoing campaign. Santorum’s performance in last night’s debate might be the strongest case for him to continue. Once again, Santorum made a strong case that he is the true conservative in the race by hammering Gingrich and Romney on their support of healthcare mandates, bailouts, and cap and trade.
In doing so, Santorum also provided the best lines of the night. In talking about both Gingrich and Romney, Santorum said, “When push came to shove, they got pushed.” He also added, “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand.” Santorum is at his best when he is making the argument that he is consistent conservative who you can trust. Santorum had another strong debate last night. As the field of candidates has narrowed, Santorum as used the extra time to show off his debate skills.
Participation Certificate: Ron Paul
For people who care about foreign policy, Paul made it clear than he doesn’t want their support. Other than that, Paul had a routine debate performance. In the South Carolina debates, Paul went on the offensive against Gingrich and Santorum. In last night’s debate Paul didn’t really engage anyone, but that may be because he didn’t get many opportunities.
Loser: Newt Gingrich
Mitt Romney got the better of Gingrich in the opening segment of the debate where his work for Freddie Mac was discussed at length. From those early moments, it was clear that Gingrich had decided to play it safe. The head scratching moment for me was when he said that he would answer Romney’s charges with a website instead of taking the time in the debate. By not engaging Romney, he allowed Romney’s attack on him to be the focus. He also let a guy like Santorum, who the media seems so willing to write off, deliver the most memorable lines of the debate.
Gingrich’s best answer of the night was when Brian Williams asked him about what he has done to advance the conservative cause. Gingrich’s answer to that question compared to Romney’s answer made it easy to understand why Gingrich did so well in South Carolina and Romney didn’t. Still, it was Santorum who articulated a clear conservative agenda throughout the night, not Gingrich.
It seems odd to declare Gingrich the loser of a debate, but he faded in the background tonight by not being his boisterous self. If there is one candidate who shouldn’t play it safe in a debate, it’s Gingrich. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
Enhanced by Zemanta