Republican Debate: No Net Change in Presidential Race

It’s a rare Republican debate when Arlen Specter, the notorious Pennsylvania moderate, merits more mentions than Ronald Reagan. Lloyd Grove on a night to forget.

02.23.12 3:16 AM ET

Newt Gingrich won the single-word-descriptor contest during Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate in Arizona. While his rivals went for earnest and self-congratulatory adjectives (“consistent,” Ron Paul said in describing himself; “courage,” Rick Santorum said; “resolute,” Mitt Romney ventured), Gingrich distinguished himself with the counterintuitive “cheerful.”

Beyond that, it was an unusually freewheeling conversation—the last among the GOP candidates for a while, we’re told—in which Arlen Specter was mentioned more often than Ronald Reagan. The more relaxed atmosphere was obviously enhanced by the fact that the candidates were seated, panel style, instead of standing behind protective podiums and launching stink bombs at one another.

Romney hewed to his talking points when not bickering with Santorum about who said what about which issue when—several engagements that voters would be justified in finding utterly confusing. And he also refused to answer CNN moderator John King’s final question, concerning the biggest misconception that people have about him. “You get to ask the questions you want, I get to give the answers I want,” Romney shot back when King pressed him—sounding as if he was repeating a stage direction that one of his debate coaches gave him during his prep.

Nobody stumbled badly; the political dynamic was not changed by any particular moment. The candidates will certainly enjoy the debate hiatus. The voters probably will, too.