This was the sixth Republican presidential debate in 20 days—a pretty grueling schedule for the candidates, and also for everyone who felt obliged to watch them.
My verdict: Mitt Romney won big in the first hour of the debate. Rick Santorum did very well in the second hour. Newt Gingrich was surprisingly defensive in the first half hour, defending himself on grounds that even if he succeeded didn’t advance his cause significantly, and then settled in to be the visionary Newt, setting out his “grandiose” (Rick Santorum’s word, which Gingrich has adopted for himself) vision on issues like space policy, seemingly without regard to whether it advances his standing among Florida Republican voters. Against the background of polling results, which have shown a trend away from Gingrich and toward Romney since the first Florida debate three nights ago, and which have shown Santorum making little perceptible headway, this looks like a big win for Romney.
The first half hour was dominated by the repartee between Romney and Gingrich on immigration. Romney managed to sound at one and the same time both strong for legal immigration and strong against illegal immigration. Gingrich allowed the argument to come down to his proposal for local citizen review boards to decide whether longtime illegal immigrants (who, Santorum had reminded the audience previously, have been violating many laws for many years) should be allowed to have residency status: the “grandfathers and grandmothers.”
It’s a typically Gingrichian proposal: a nod to history (the analogy to World War II local draft boards, which by the 1960s were seen as profoundly unfair because of lack of uniform national standards), a certain novelty (no one else I know of has advanced a similar idea) and a vulnerability to criticism. (The East Los Angeles local board would just legalize everybody, and everybody who wanted to legalize would scramble to get into the jurisdiction of the East Los Angeles local board: the same kind of things draft avoiders did in the late 1960s.)
For voters concerned about stopping illegal immigration (read: most Republican primary voters) Gingrich put himself in the position of Rick Perry arguing that you are “heartless” if you oppose in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants; for voters concerned about legalizing previously illegal grandmothers—well, there aren’t too many of them in Florida and even fewer among Florida registered Republicans, since of the two most numerous groups Cubans are eligible for special treatment and Puerto Ricans are citizens by virtue of a law passed by Congress in 1917. Romney had a bad moment when he seemed flabbergasted by the contents of a campaign ad put on not by a superPAC but by his own campaign. But he more than compensated for that by repeatedly stating his sympathy for legal immigrants and would-be immigrants.
Then Romney got a chance to whack Gingrich on his $1.6 million contract with Freddie Mac, and made the most of it. To Gingrich’s charge that he invested in Freddie and Fannie himself, he pointed out that he has a blind trust, that he didn’t own stock in them but only bonds through mutual funds—and that Gingrich owned similar mutual funds too. A triumph for oppo research and campaign prep. Gingrich’s attempt to discredit Wolf Blitzer’s question on the transparency of Romney’s financial disclosures seemed to me to fall flat, and to give Romney a chance to make the points that he earned rather than inherited his money.
From there on in, Gingrich seemed to me to morph into his expansive “grandiose” mode, which he enjoys immensely and in which he tends to say many interesting things. Interesting, but not necessarily vote-winning. His proposal advanced on the stump yesterday for a moon colony and admission to the Union as a state if it reaches a population of 13,000—kind of interesting to think about, but Romney responded with a withering critique of Gingrich promising federal spending on local projects in South Carolina (I-73 and dredging the port of Charleston) and New Hampshire (a new VA hospital). Obviously an attempt to undermine Gingrich’s credibility with tea party voters, and Gingrich clearly didn’t see it coming.
In the second half of the debate Santorum launched as tough and effective an attack on Romneycare as I can remember in these debates, which triggered Romney’s robotic and not particularly persuasive response that 92% of people weren’t affected because they already had health insurance. But Santorum also whacked Gingrich for supporting an individual mandate to buy health insurance for 20 years—again undermining his credibility with tea party voters.
Romney cleverly, but somewhat disingenuously, disassociated himself with the tough Romney and pro-Romney ads and videos arguing that Gingrich wasn’t particularly close to and in some important contexts was a strong critic of Ronald Reagan. And, quite smartly, he didn’t claim to be a Reagan conservative all along, but said that he was concentrating on his business career and only came to be a strong opponent of abortion and of spending increases after he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, in the process conceding that Gingrich as a young congressman supported Reagan in the 1980s more than he did. This is plausible—and perhaps convincing to voters who don’t think a candidate has to be all politics all the time during all of his adult life to be a worthy champion of their views now. Particularly if they have taken the points that Gingrich has not always been conservative or reliable or, perhaps more important, reliably conservative.
Santorum was especially good on the health care issue, and how both Romney and Gingrich were wrong on the issue; he gave an excellent closing speech, noting aptly that Barack Obama’s scrambling to position himself as a champion of manufacturing was in part at least a response to Santorum’s tax plan favoring manufacturing. He refused to pander to the supposed concerns of Florida Hispanic voters (not so much their actual concerns, as I have indicated above) about immigration in the opening question, and he responded manfully to the continued questions of marginal interest to the vast majority of Florida voters on peripheral issues like Puerto Rican statehood (Santorum said sensibly that the voters of Puerto Rico should decide).
I gloss over the questions on how the candidates might seek divine guidance and what they think their wives might contribute as First Lady, except to note that Blitzer apparently, and wisely, seemed to let Santorum go over his time limit to pay tribute in moving terms to his absent wife Karen (and it was nice to see him salute his 93-year-old mother in the audience). Bottom line: a winning night for Mitt Romney, despite his glaring failure to acknowledge the contents of one of his own ads; a very solid performance by Rick Santorum; and perhaps evidence of a sense of resignation by Newt Gingrich, who has seen his hopes and expectations of becoming the 45th president rise and fall in the spring, rise and fall from mid-November to mid-December, rise again the week and during the two debates before South Carolina and perhaps fall again in the course of this week and the two debates therein. Romney knew what he had to do, did it and did so with more novel and inventive moves than most of us in the press anticipated.