None of the candidates really shined in tonight's Republican debate, but Rick Santorum, in his first debate as a co-frontrunner, badly stumbled. So by default, that helps Mitt Romney.
From the get go and throughout the debate, Santorum was on defensive on issues including earmarks, his backing of Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate race, and his vote for No Child Left Behind. The biggest problem is that in defending himself in all of these cases, he got bogged down in Senate procedure and elaborate political machinations. All of that made him come across as a Washington insider and establishment figure, which directly undercut his appeal as the "anti-Romney."
Santorum's biggest blunder on this front came in how he described his vote for Bush's expansion of the federal role in education, saying "It was against the principles I believed in. But when you're part of a team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader." This gets at the heart of the problem with Santorum, which I wrote about the day he announced he was running for president -- he was the quintessential Bush era Republican. As the number three Republican in the Senate, he was a loyal soldier and went along with Bush's big government policies, from NCLB to the Medicare prescription drug law. The very problem with the Bush era was precisely that too many Republicans decided to be team players rather than push back against the president when he was violating conservative principles. It's this very "team player" mentality that the Tea Party movement, in part, was created to combat. Santorum spent the early part of his debate touting his opposition to the Wall Street bailout, but his argument tonight about taking one for the team leaves little doubt that he would have voted for the bailout had he still been in the Senate in 2008. It was much easier for him to sit back and criticize the policy when he was out of office. Santorum's comment about his unwillingness to stand up for his principles when they clashed with Bush on NCLB was especially ironic, because it came moments after he used the word "courage" when he was asked to describe himself with one word.
So Santorum bombed, and Romney facilitated that process by staying on the attack, but he didn't particularly distinguish himself during the debate. In many previous debates he was able to stay above the fray and look presidential. But in this debate, having to scrap with Santorum and sit at a table with his rivals, made him look a lot smaller than in the past -- just another one of the candidates.
Newt Gingrich, by nature of his place in the polls, wasn't as much on attack or defense as he had been in past debates. He had some strong answers, but it's unlikely that he did anything tonight to vault him back into contention. Interestingly, Ron Paul may have had his strongest debate yet. He was tough on the attack against Santorum as a big government Republican and brought a lot of the questions back to fundamental principles -- such as arguing that the federal government had no role in education. Even when it came to foreign policy, Paul had a slightly more nuanced take on Iran than he usually does. He started out by trying to argue that Iran was merely responding to the threat posed by U.S. military presence in the Middle East, neglecting its own saber rattling with repeated calls for "death to America" and wiping Israel off the map. But he eventually made the argument that if Republicans were to take action against Iran, they should at least go through Congress. It's a more limited critique, and perhaps evidence that he's taking pointers from his more politically savvy son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
But as I said up front, tonight was about Rick Santorum, and he had a lousy showing at a time when he needed to bring his game to the next level.