Messy

02.22.12

Their Many Debate Missteps Could Haunt Romney and Santorum

Expect to see the frontrunners’ false moves soon in opponents’ attack ads.

The 20th—and possibly final—Republican primary debate was messy at times, but it will leave a mark, not so much for the candidates’ successes but because of the missteps that were made and that might soon show up in an attack ad.

Rick Santorum came into the debate the national frontrunner—a meaningless distinction in this state-by-state fight, but it does mean that the pile-on will be merciless, and Santorum didn’t do himself any favors.

The worst hits Rick took were for votes during his 12 years in the Senate—reflecting the buckets of oppo research that are thrown at any surging candidate.   Inexplicably, he seemed unprepared for the earmarking attacks that had already been directed at him via ads. Instead, the audience was treated to a substantive mini-seminar in the theory and practice of earmarking. With a Romney-tilting audience, the nervous verbiage sounded even worse than it was. The natives were restless, and Santorum seemed rattled and rambling.

Mitt Romney had a strong debate by comparison, but there were no clear knockout punches. If he won the debate, he did so by not losing—a common refrain when it comes to Romney.

But at least one moment might come back to hurt him. Arizona is, of course, ground zero for the immigration debate, and Romney called Arizona’s controversial law “a model” for the nation. It was unclear whether he was speaking about the citizenship-verification provision or just the attempt to implement E-Verify, but I’m willing to bet that line will appear in a general-election ad, compounding the GOP’s problems with Hispanic voters.

Two other Romney unforced errors: one substance and one style. On the welcome subject of education reform, Romney said he supported school choice. Fair enough. Except—and you probably know what’s coming next—Romney did not support school choice when he was governor. In fact, he explicitly opposed vouchers in his 2002 campaign and refused to meet with advocates.

The style point was small and tucked in at the end of the debate, but it was telling.  When moderator John King asked all the candidates to close by addressing the biggest misconception about their candidacy, Romney refused to answer, saying testily something to the effect of “you get to ask the questions you want and I get to answer the questions I want.” There is an imperiousness about Romney that comes across when he is challenged. He is clearly a man accustomed to getting his way, but that quality does not speak well of his ability to withstand the critical scrutiny that inevitably comes to every president.

Santorum came into the debate the national frontrunner—a meaningless distinction in this state-by-state fight, but it does mean that the pile-on will be merciless.

Newt Gingrich had a strong debate—he remains the most engaging explainer of public policy in this crowd of candidates and seems most liberated to be himself when he is not the frontrunner. At this point, it seems clear that Ron Paul is running to unapologetically promote ideas, and he is effective in that effort.

In the post-debate, Paul focused on the otherwise across-the-board impulse to pander when it comes to defense spending. Everyone on the stage is a deficit hawk—but most balk when it comes to cutting Pentagon spending for fear of seeming weak on defense. This, of course, has the ancillary benefit of pleasing the legions of lobbyists on K Street. Paul reminded the audience that Republican President—and General—Eisenhower was focused on fiscal responsibility and explicitly looked to cut the waste he knew existed in what he termed the “military-industrial complex.” That is one lost Republican tradition that could use some reviving right about now.