01.26.12

Republican Debate: Rick Santorum’s Class Act

Romney won on points, but nobody has raised his stock in these debates the way Senator Sweatervest has. Michelle Cottle on Rick's rising stature.

I swear Rick Santorum grows ever more adorable with each passing week.

More impressive still, unlike the rest of the Republican field, the former Pennsylvania senator has steadily grown in stature.

Coming into this race, Santorum was more Dan Savage punchline than serious candidate. But bit by bit, he has presented himself as a passionate, consistent, committed, articulate, thoughtful, and—dare I say it—likable statesman.

Are his positions more conservative than the bulk of the nation? No doubt. But as far as character goes, no one has shone more brightly than Rick.

Every time Santorum opened his mouth Thursday night, you could be confident that the discussion was going to be—relatively—elevated and energized. (Someone has clearly been taking his vitamins!) The other candidates’ outrageous promises were challenged. Their self-aggrandizement was punctured. Their bullshit was called. (Except on U.S. relations with Cuba, but everyone on stage pandered shamelessly on that topic.)

At the same time, Santorum managed not to be overly snarky or condescending. I mean, the guy engaged with Gingrich’s daffy babble about a moon colony without bursting out in donkey-like guffaws. That takes class.

Alas, even as the audience was applauding Santorum’s reality checks and pleas for seriousness, the cold reality is that nothing he said will likely make a lick of difference.

As previously noted, Santorum lacks heft. For whatever combo of intangibles, Senator Sweatervest’s criticisms don’t stick. Despite his ideological clarity, impressive command of the facts, and fighter’s instincts, he’s like a schnauzer nipping at the ankles of grizzlies. Much of the time, his opponents don’t even bother to seriously respond.

Pity.

For all Rick’s moxy, most of the blood drawn Thursday night came from Mitt Romney’s blade. Though characteristically stiff and awkward, the governor was uncharacteristically emotional. His pushback against Gingrich’s charge that he’s anti-immigrant was fierce. More vicious still was his slap at Gingrich’s serial pandering to the parochial interests of whatever primary state the speaker happens to be standing in.

Final ruling: Newt lost ground, Rick was eloquent but ineffectual, and Ron Paul was Ron Paul. Which means Mitt won this round by default.