Barone: Strong debate for Romney, Santorum

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

Newt Gingrich had a great 24 hours going into the debate, getting the endorsement of Rick Perry and leading in three South Carolina polls released today, but I think both Romney and Santorum did much better in the debate and may have recovered significant ground. Gingrich was, after his scathing attack on John King and CNN for starting off with the question about the Marianne Gingrich interview, mostly off his game. He told me Tuesday that he debates without preparation, like a jazz musician who improvises when he gets out there. But Charlie Parker and Miles Davis had their off nights too.

Romney showed a real flair for turning questions into opportunities to make his own points, and with an aggressiveness that gamecock-admiring South Carolinians tend to admire. He brushed aside the questions on the Marianne Gingrich issue by saying brusquely, let’s get on to the real issues. On his next opportunity, when John King combined questions on Bain Capital and what the federal government can do to encourage job creations (another stimulus package, John?), by stating his basic economic platform, then slamming crony capitalism and then hitting Barack Obama for subsidizing Solyndra and trying to stymie Boeing (a big South Carolina issue). Then he switched to Bain Capital, set out numbers of jobs created and lost, and said he would defend capitalism and take it to Obama and—gamecock style—stuff it down his throat. He turned a question on veterans to a denunciation of Obama’s defense budget,

For the first time I can remember in 17—is that right?—debates he was faced a frontal criticism, from Rick Santorum, on the individual mandate in Romneycare, and I think he came out ahead here too, insisting he would repeal Obamacare.

This was followed by Santorum’s attack on Gingrich as a “grandiose” leader. Gingrich made his case that he has been a transformative leader, but Santorum’s attack echoed the conference call and video hits by Gingrich’s House colleagues Susan Molinari and Jim Talent which I consider very damaging. And Romney didn’t have to say a word on this, as Santorum knocked down the guy who has just been overtaking him in South Carolina polls. Then Romney zapped in with an item I mentioned in a blogpost earlier today, his (or his campaign’s) discovery that Gingrich is mentioned just once in the published version of the Reagan diaries, and not in any positive way. Gingrich’s case is that he showed, in the early 1980s and mid-1990s, that he can be a transformative leader. There is certainly something to it, but Romney was able to suggested that Gingrich was exaggerating greatly about the early 1980s and Santorum made a strong case that Gingrich’s genuine achievements in the mid-1990s were balanced by his “an idea a minute, no discipline” way of doing business.

The tax issue gave Romney an opportunity to make the case for capitalism again and, perhaps more important, make the case—and it’s surely contrary to what many voters have been guessing—that he didn’t inherit any money but earned everything he has himself. (This is inherently plausible: Mormons tithe and as I understand are not prone to providing great inheritances, and Romney’s parents lived on into the 1990s, at which point Romney himself had already made lots of money.) I thought his point about deciding not to work in the car industry but rather going into a new business was a strong one. He might have added, and perhaps he will later, that the Detroit Big Three against which his father’s American Motors competed turned out to be complacently and incompetently managed firms that could have used a Bain-type private-equity takeover, in which case General Motors and Chrysler might not have needed multibillion dollar takeovers from the federal government. (But maybe he’ll delay that until Michigan votes, lest he lose his old home town of Bloomfield Hills.)

On immigration and abortion I thought Romney again seemed forceful and convincing.

Rick Santorum had a chance here, as he hasn’t in most debates, to advance his own platform as he does to audiences on the stump, and I thought he did so forcefully, fluently and with obvious conviction. I was astonished that he attacked Gingrich on his leadership style as he did, though he was echoing what many former Gingrich colleagues say either off or, like Molinari and Talent, on the record. Santorum made a heartfelt argument for his zero tax on manufacturers, paid tribue to his immigrant forebears and noted that he grew up on a Veterans Administration compound (no one, including me, has gotten him to describe his ideological journey as a young man who apparently was not a strong conservative to a young man who was and who was strongly enough motivated to go door to door and win an upset victory in a House race at age 32).

Santorum was strong and persistent in his assault on Romneycare and his attack on Gingrich’s leadership style; polls show he has been slipping far behind both of them in South Carolina, and so he had a motive for taking them both down, a formidable task; but he worked aggressively and fearlessly to do so. He didn’t fare so well on the question on SOPA, where his convictions evidently obliged him to take a stand more favorable to intellectual property than some young Internet users would like (I saw him encounter the same problem in forum in Windham, New Hampshire); Gingrich and Romney were, in my view, more in pander mode on an issue on which Hollywood may pay a price for its persistent and, from a profits point of view, irrational leftism.

But Santorum was able to give the last closing statement, and he responded with the peroration he’s been giving on the stump, appealing to South Carolinians’ convictions and their desire to pick the Republican nominee by arguing that they need to select a bold conservative who can provide a real contrast with Barack Obama and arguing that they picked a similarly bold conservative against alternatives who were supposed to have a better chance to win when they chose Ronald Reagan in 1980. This was Santorum’s most effective debate performance to date, at least that I can recall. He got the chance he was seeking even if he must fear that it, like the announcement today that he finished ahead of Mitt Romney in Iowa (with eight precincts uncountable), came a little too late.

What about Newt? He’ll get mainstream media and other headlines for his dustback of John King and CNN on the Marianne Gingrich interview, but this still has the potential of hurting him, especially among women voters; how much we’ll see. Some of his answers should good knowledge of South Carolina issues, though he did better on that Monday in the Fox News debate; as in that debate he was a bit on the defensive on his former criticisms of Romney’s business record. After that, he didn’t get much in the way of questions for a while; he managed to mention that his father was a World War II veteran, that the G.I. Bill of Rights did huge things to change America and that he distrusts congressional staffs. He got off a good line when he said that people whose “children” are, thanks to Obamacare, on their health insurance policies until age 26 will heave a sigh of relief when those “children” actually have a chance to get jobs and take care of their own health insurance.

But none of these responses advance his cause much, I think. In talking about health care, he got in his line about how he would debate Obama and allow him to use a teleprompter (have people heard this too many times already?) but then was put on the defensive when Rick Santorum blasted him for backing an individual mandate to buy health insurance until 2007. Then Santorum came on with the “grandiose” charge.

Romney has been lucky this year in that his rivals have had incentives to attack each other more than him; Santorum did attack Romney in this debate, but he had an incentive to attack Gingrich as well (Gingrich, who trailed him in South Carolina polls between Iowa and New Hampshire, is now way ahead of him in South Carolina polls) and, in my judgment, directed considerable more firepower in Gingrich’s way than Romney’s. Gingrich gave a typically interesting answer on immigration, but was still weighed down by his proposal for decisionmaking on illegals by local boards along the lines of World War II draft boards (which weren’t regarded as fair in the 1960s). Oddly, in his closing statement Gingrich thanked CNN for the debate, after denouncing them bitterly at the beginning. Overall, not as good as his vote-moving performance Monday night.

Ron Paul was once again Ron Paul. And his followers insisted, successfully, that he get a chance to answer a question after John King passed over him.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner