What’s the difference between watching one of these debates on television versus being in the hall? I was in the hall last night, as I have been on too many other occasions to defend as proper use of a human being’s time, going back to Admiral James Stockdale’s famous “Why Am I Here?” moment in 1992.
I think the difference used to be greater than it is now. Now, viewers are sophisticated enough to smell the room from their own living rooms. And the smell last night was about the turnaround line—that point in the exchange when the candidate turns the question around on the questioner and wins the crowd. That’s all it’s come to. And Newt Gingrich is the master of the turnaround, but Rick Santorum is getting to be a brown belt, and Mitt Romney still has a little work to do.
As we filed into our seats around 7:30 (I sat in the actual hall, not the press filing center), there was undeniable tension in the hall, an arena of 12,000 seats (most of them sealed off—the attendance was probably something like 4,000). That was natural, wasn’t it, given what had happened over the course of the day. Rick Perry withdrew. Rick Santorum suddenly became the Iowa winner. And, most strikingly, Marianne Gingrich, wife No. 2, decided to go public and mark her territory. What would happen? One knew that would come up. One did not necessarily know it would come up first.
And that was the only truly dramatic moment of the night. John King started with Marianne, and Newt drew not one standing ovation as he had with Juan Williams, but two. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic that …” You couldn’t even hear the rest in the hall. First standing ovation. “Every person here knows personal pain.” Nice! Blah blah blah, “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.” Blah blah blah. “I am frankly astounded.” Blah. Then—right at King. “John, don’t try to blame somebody else.” Then—a brilliant opening of the hood, showing the assembled how the machine really functions. “We offered several friends to ABC,” which didn’t want to hear from them. And finally—it took him a while, but he finally hit on where to take this, which was against the media. “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama and …” Couldn’t hear the rest. Second standing ovation.
Those were turnaround lines that no one else on that stage could have pulled off, which speaks well of Gingrich in a way, but really poorly of him, which is to say that only a person essentially without conscience could do all that with such brio. But Gingrich didn’t corner the market on the turnaround line.
Rick Santorum had two good ones. One, at Newt, although he didn’t set it up well. The subject was the 1994 GOP takeover of the House, and Gingrich was bloviating away about how he’d done it all, at which point Santorum rejoined that the House banking scandal had as much to do with it as the Contract With America, which is arguably true, although no one knows that, and no one knows that Santorum had anything to do with uncovering that scandal. So he kind of missed there. But he scored solidly with his response to the idea of Gingrich suggesting that he should drop out. I won Iowa, Santorum said; and I finished ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire. “I was 2 and 0, and I should get out of the race? These are not cogent thoughts.” The crowd bought it.
Santorum’s second effective turnaround was on Ron Paul, on abortion, when, after a lengthy Pauline soliloquy about the sanctity of life, Santorum noted that Paul’s right-to-life voting record “was about 50 percent; about the same as Harry Reid.” Mention a Democrat. Never fails.
Mitt Romney? Just OK. He was all right dealing with the Bain Capital stuff, but only all right. He froze, though, on the tax-return question. John King cornered him well when he invoked his father, George, Michigan governor back in the day, who (as far as we all know) started the process of politicians releasing tax returns and made public 12 years’ worth in 1967. Something about hearing his father’s name made him recoil. Worth noting. He got some good applause with: “I will not apologize for being successful.” But he definitely finished third tonight, or possibly even fourth if you’re a Paulite.
The people in this hall (and hey, I saw two black people in attendance!) probably walked away thinking: Newt knows how to do this, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the guy we should send into battle; Santorum was feisty tonight, well-prepared and substantive, but he’s really not seriously going to be the president of the United States; Romney was so-so, but he’s the only one who sort of seems like a plausible president. And that’s where it stands. I guess that argues for Romney winning, but Gingrich will be the sound-bite king, and defeating his ex-wife in the spin cycle, as he seems to have done, might count for a lot. Twenty-four hours to go.