Politics

02.22.12

Michael Tomasky on How Romney Rocked Santorum in the Arizona Debate

Mitt needed to prevent Rick from winning the Mesa, Ariz., debate, and he accomplished that meager goal. But did he win by enough to change the dynamic in the race?

The 20th and maybe the last debate! I hope I don’t die someday 40 hours before some event I really want to attend, because something tells me I’m never getting those 40 hours back. Anyway: Mitt Romney won this debate, and he won it with homework and discipline. He probably didn’t win it by all that much, but he was clearly readier for the key moments that arose than Rick Santorum was, and he was good enough, possibly, to break through and carry Michigan and settle things down.

The pivotal exchange came almost exactly halfway through the event, precipitated by a question about birth control. First of all, the audience, like previous audiences, shamed itself by booing the question (because it’s a “liberal media” kind of question, you see, although in this case it was asked not by CNN’s John King but by a presumed audience member). Newt Gingrich played to that sentiment well, as he so often does, and got a big hand for saying Barack Obama is the real intolerant one. But then it boiled down to an intense exchange between Romney and Santorum, not about birth control per se but more broadly about health care.

You have 60 seconds, or 90, to say your piece at these debates. You have to cut right to the bone of what you want to say. You can do one of two things in those 60 or 90 seconds: you can actually answer the question, or you can make sure you get off a soundbite that is rich in red meat for the audience. You can’t do both. If you spend 20 or 30 seconds answering the question, you’ve already lost the crowd.

And during this crucial exchange, Santorum kept answering the questions, and Romney kept getting off soundbites. Santorum was challenged about his voting record as senator, which included votes that funded Planned Parenthood. He tried to answer the question. He wasted 30 seconds explaining that it was a massive appropriations bill, there was stuff in there he supported. There were boos. He lost the crowd. He rebounded a bit in the next 30 seconds by explaining that he pushed for abstinence money. But he didn’t come close to getting off a one-liner.

Romney, though, was prepared and came up with probably the most effective little moment of the night. Senator, he said, if Romneycare was so terrible, then why four years ago, which was a few years after my health bill passed, did you endorse me, saying I was a true conservative? Boom. And then, by the way, why did you endorse Arlen Specter for reelection in Pennsylvania over Pat Toomey—the same Specter who went on to vote for Obama’s health bill? Boom again.

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From a rumored Romney/Paul pact to Santorum missing his mark, Michael Tomasky and Michelle Cottle on the highs and lows of the final GOP debate.

Santorum mustered a decent response, about how he went to Specter and got from him a guarantee that Specter, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would push through George W. Bush’s Supreme Court appointments. But Romney controlled the exchange. Santorum spent time explaining the legislative process. Romney—here’s where the homework and discipline come in—threw a couple of new jabs at Santorum, the 2008 endorsement and the support for Specter, for which Santorum was clearly unprepared.

Every time Santorum is right on the cusp of breaking out and really has a chance to establish himself as the one to beat, he just can’t quite do it.

Santorum was not a total failure. I’d give him the bailout exchange on points, if chiefly because Romney is such a ridiculous liar on this question. Everyone knows that only the federal government was able to guarantee the kinds of sums GM and Chrysler needed. Romney’s talk of “managed bankruptcy” is just silly, and a typical Romney whitewash, the kind of slipper talk that he is so often guilty of. What’s happened on that issue in these last couple of weeks is that Barack Obama has, barring some really crazy development, won Michigan and its 16 electoral votes.

But Santorum, I think, needed to come out of this debate a clear winner, and he didn’t. This has happened to him before. Every time he’s right on the cusp of breaking out and really has a chance to establish himself as the one to beat, he just can’t quite do it. There’s a Berlin Wall of authority that at the crucial moments he just can’t vault. He didn’t make any moments for himself, as Gingrich did in South Carolina, to create an aura of momentum.

So Romney is still the default choice. The polls are close in Arizona and Michigan, so who knows. And no one is excited about Romney. But he grinds it out. The pressure was on him not to screw up, and he didn’t. He’s still the clear first-string quarterback for this team. But he’s one that most of the fans would still like to see traded. He can out-debate these guys, but can’t seem to change how he’s regarded in the stands.