Troy, Ashton, Tim, Renee, Jeff…. any replies to this would be welcome. Anyway, here’s my take on last night’s debate, and the state of the race, from as neutral an analytical perspective as possible:
HUGE LOSER: Ron Paul finally marginalized himself irretrievably, especially in a pro-military state like South Carolina, with his lengthy diatribes basically positing that the Taliban weren’t all that bad and that bin Laden deserved a trial, or something like that. Plus, he wandered and meandered and sounded more shrill than usual. A horrible performance for him.
LOSER: Mitt Romney had his worst debate performance by far. He started okay and ended okay, both times in exchanges mainly with Gingrich, over the roles and behavior of Super PACs. But in between he was flustered, off his game, a bit stumbling, nervous-looking — and completely bumfuddled by Rick Santorum’s cross-examination about felon voting rights. Just when he had a chance to put the race away for good, he let others back in the game.
SLIGHTLY HELPED HIMSELF: Rick Perry has made himself almost irrelevant by his bad earlier debates and weak finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Last night, though, he was on his game, even if his substance was, well, not really substantial. Michelle Bachmann would have blown him out the door for saying we should completely eliminate foreign aid, because of course some of that aid actually “buys” for us essential things like cooperation on intelligence, plus military bases, etcetera. What he said about Turkey being virtually a terrorist state was absurdly overstated. But he played very well to whatever purely populist voting bloc is out there, and he did a great job blasting the Obama administration on its “war” on South Carolina over voter ID laws. Overall, if Perry had done this well in the first 10 debates, he might not be dominating, but he would still be very much in the mix in the polls.
BRAVURA LEMONADE-MAKING FROM LEMONS: Rick Santorum only got one question that actually played into his “wheelhouse,” as the expression goes. Almost every time he was given a chance to talk, it was on a subject that wouldn’t ordinarily play well for him. For that reason, he probably only helped himself a little more than he was hurt last night — but if he had not had his “A” game, it could have been a disaster. For instance, he was pressed on his truly wrongheaded vote years ago to automatically restore voting privileges (in federal elections only) to felons once they have fully satisfied all parole and probation requirements. On the merits, I think this is a horrible position. Most conservatives agree. Nothing should be automatic for some former felony inmates; full privileges should come only after careful review by a board convened for that purpose. On the other hand, Santorum always has had this subtext thing going of the Catholic social-gospel, people-can-be-redeemed-and-forgiven variety. It speaks well of him as a human being. This long-ago vote was his way of saying, hey, if you’ve fully paid your legal debt to society, you again become a full member of the society.
Conservatives don’t agree. Conservatives think some crimes are virtually unforgivable, and, moreover, that if they are to be forgiven, it should not be automatic, just by jumping through enough hoops with the passage of time. The good news is that such a proposal will never be politically popular enough to pass Congress, so people inclined toward Santorum but who don’t like this old vote of his shouldn’t worry about it being a serious effort.
But I digress. Somehow, Santorum actually won, big, in his exchange on the issue with Romney. Santorum correctly and effectively blasted the Romney super-PAC for falsely making it appear as if Santorum favors allowing current inmates to vote. Then he hit Romney from the right again (and from the standpoint of whether Romney is either courageous enough or competent enough) because Romney did nothing even to attempt to change Massachusetts law that allows felons to vote even before completing parole and probation. In short, Santorum turned a negative into a slight political positive overall, if only because the bigger impression wasn’t that he is a “squish” on felons, but that he is more honest, more thoughtful, more fair, and tougher than Mitt Romney. Santorum also gave really solid answers on gun rights and on the connection between marriage (or its lack) and poverty. If the debate had been a two-man affair between him and Romney, Santorum would have scored an enormous victory.
BIG WINNER, BUT WITH AN ASTERISK: Newt Gingrich’s performance was a perfect reverse-image of Romney’s. Whereas Romney did pretty well on the opening and closing questions but stumbled in the middle, Gingrich started and ended poorly but in the middle had what most pundits are calling the single best debate performance of this endless nomination season. I wonder, though, if it was a vote-winning performance. In an earlier debate, for instance, my wife astutely said that with detailed answers Rick Santorum was “winning minds without winning votes” (or as I put it, impressing without “connecting” with voters); here, I think Gingrich won visceral reactions without changing minds. Here’s the thing: by now, everybody expects some excellent debate moments from Gingrich. People know he can hit tee balls out of the park. But is that still enough to gain their allegiance? People have seen him all over the map on so many issues, and have seen him so desperate and mean about Bain and other anti-Romney jeremiads, that now they want to see something from him that touches their hearts, not just their viscera, and that tells them he can actually be a steady enough performer (not just an occasionally exciting or explosive one) in a full general-election campaign.
In that light, it struck me that Gingrich really didn’t look good, particularly at the beginning of the debate. He looked a bit pale; he looked grim; he looked particularly fat of body but oddly thin of face; and he didn’t look friendly. Indeed, I think he looked, overall, unappealing, unhealthy, and unlikeable. And even when he was destroying the premised of Juan Williams’ questions, there was a weirdly off-putting edge to him. He was too “hot” (as opposed to figuratively “cool”) for TV, in both tone and visage. It was almost as if he was making one last hurrah before another bomb, a big one, drops on him. It was as if he was in a particularly foul mood because he knows his goose is cooked, for some reason or another.
So, while I concur that Gingrich absolutely dominated the middle portions of debate, with effective and popular positions and explanations, I’m not sure if it will translate into major new poll support. Just a hunch. But it was a hell of a show.