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This was a debate full of surprises, at least for me. The first: CNN’s John King showed some forebearance in not leading off with a question to Rick Santorum on his statements on contraception and other cultural issues. Instead, we had an audience question on how to bring down the national debt. The second surprise was that when King did pose such a question, after the first break, Santorum gave a first-rate reply, declining to speak about his personal feelings about contraception, but instead focusing on the fact that 40% of children are now born out of wedlock, and citing the concern expressed about this fact by Charles Murray in his new book Coming Apart and by a New York Times reporter in a front page story—both of which matter of factly note the undeniable fact that children born out of wedlock and raised with a single parent tend to have huge disadvantages in life. Interestingly, Mitt Romney, who had responded before Santorum with a strong attack on Barack Obama for what he said was his attack on religious tolerance and conscience, was called on again and made a point of agreeing with Santorum. In my Examiner column today I argued that Santorum’s comments on cultural issues could hurt his candidacy; in his response he avoided the negative downside and made a good case for himself. But Romney also came off strongly from this interchange.
“A good night for Romney. A mixed night for Santorum…an enjoyable evening for Grandpa Newt…and a pleasant evening for Ron Paul.” – Michael Barone
In some other interchanges, however, Mitt Romney seemed to have the upper hand. On the first questions on spending and earmarks, he found himself under attack from Romney and Ron Paul (who’s been running an ad calling Santorum a “fake” conservative) and failed, it seemed to me, to do much to undercut Romney’s claim to have been a fiscal conservative as governor of Massachusetts. Then there ensued a long back-and-forth on earmarks, in which Santorum made a good case that the Constitution encourages them and that Romney in his work on the Salt Lake City Olympics requested them—but which left Santorum defending a practice that today’s conservatives consider anathema. There followed an argument between Romney and Santorum on “bailouts.” Here Santorum had the advantage of the purist position, as an opponent of both TARP and the auto company bailouts, but Romney took advantage of the opportunity to make his case for managed bankruptcy for the Detroit auto companies and to tell Michigan Republican primary voters that the Obama administration had bailed out the United Auto Workers—a popular stand for Michigan Republicans.
Santorum was also on the defensive for his votes for appropriations that included money for Planned Parenthood under Title X; he made the point that he introduced Title XX, providing for abstinence education.
Romney also undercut Santorum’s predictable attack that his Massachusetts health care plan (Romney made a concession by calling it “Romneycare”) by arguing that Santorum was responsible for passing Obamcare because he supported Arlen Specter in his 2004 primary race against Pat Toomey and then Specter, having switched to the Democratic party, provided the crucial 60th vote for Obamacare at a couple of junctures. Santorum responded by correctly pointing out that Specter as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee provided crucial support for the nominations of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. It’s true that Specter provided stalwart support for Roberts and Alito. But is it so clear that their nominations (or even just Alito’s) might have been defeated if Specter had not supported them?
Another issue where Romney put Santorum on the defensive was women in combat. Romney said he’d look to the military for judgement and cited the experienced of the daughter of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—a Romney supporter—as an officer in Iraq. Romney then made a stalwart denunciation of allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons; Santorum, who as he pointed out has a long history of warning against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, was reduced to agreeing and saying that Romney’s answer was “right on” and “well spoken,” before delivering his strong statement on the issue. Then came a question on education, and Santorum was defensive in his self-criticism for having supported the No Child Left Behind law. Santorum’s statement that sometimes you have to play team ball in politics was obviously unpopular with this audience, which cheered Romney loudly at any appropriate (and some inappropriate) junctures and was positive toward Gingrich and Ron Paul but which on occasion booed Santorum. One advantage of a well-organized campaign is that you can pack a hall (and it may not have hurt that Mesa, a huge suburb of Phoenix, has a large Mormon community) and one disadvantage of a not-well-organized campaign is that you can’t.
Another surprise: we didn’t see Newt Gingrich oozing with anger toward Mitt Romney, or anyone else except perhaps mainstream media. Instead he was grandfatherly, taking the long view on issues, agreeing congenially with other candidates quite often, making his own (probably quixotic) case for repealing the “130-year-old” civil service laws to make the federal government more efficient and manageable. He came out on Romney’s side by pointing out that women in the military, and even civilian women, are in danger in the kinds of conflicts we face.
The final question, asking candidates to address voters’ misconceptions about them, showed neither Romney nor Santorum at his best. Romney launched into his rote speech about his success as a leader in business and the Olympics and, when King interjected to ask him again about misconceptions, he replied that King could ask the questions but he could give the answers. Sounds a bit robotic to me. Santorum’s statement immediately following was not more inspiring; citing his experience running an underfinanced, underorganized campaign against higher-spending opponents, he said he had shown he could “do a lot with a little”—an appealing reply, perhaps, but not one that establishes that you have presidential stature.
Bottom line. A good night for Romney. A mixed night for Santorum, who came off well on the issue where I thought he was vulnerable but too often seemed defensive on other issues. An enjoyable evening for Grandpa Newt, who invited viewers to watch his 30-minute ad of American energy policy, and a pleasant evening for Ron Paul, who got to spread his message further around the country.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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