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Posted at 11:52 PM ET, 02/22/2012

At CNN Debate, Rick Santorum misses his chance


No, you! (The Associated Press)

Santorum misses his old podium already.

On what may have been the last of the GOP debates, in Mesa, Arizona, Rick Santorum found himself uncomfortably close to the center. This was the first time he’s been close to the center of any debate, let alone a presidential one, and the fit was uncomfortable at best. He blinked. He paused mid-sentence and stared fixedly into the camera as though hoping words would materialize. It was nothing too egregious, but it wasn’t the lean, scrappy performance he usually gives from the Outer Rim Territories. It is more difficult to lob grenades from inside the building.

On top of that, the format was different: Seating the candidates at a table allowed viewers to see the expressions of variegated mirth and disbelief that played over their faces as their opponents spoke.

Something was just off.

There’s that moment when Ron Paul calls you “fake” and you insist, poking your arm, "I'm real! I'm real!" that one begins to sense that the debate is slipping away from you. And that was just a few minutes in.

And nothing much else had changed. Newt Gingrich rambled grandiosely. Ron Paul begged the other candidates to at least have the courtesy to ask Congress to declare war before invading Iran. The usual tropes resurfaced. Border fences. Obamacare. Gingrich earned one of the night’s biggest applause lines by noting that kids these days have self esteem when they can’t even spell self esteem. Excess, misplaced self esteem? That’s Gingrich’s wheelhouse!

And Mitt Romney, Atlas relieved for another few moments of the weight of the Lone Frontrunner position, shone by comparison. He joked about George Costanza. He seemed relaxed and prepared.

Santorum once more alowed others to redefine him, to his own detriment. Under attack from both Romney and Paul, he became The Rank And Filer In Congress Who Voted For Things That He Later regretted. “Politics is a team sport,” he noted, lamely, at one point. If so, he’s no Jeremy Lin. According to Paul, he’s the guy who keeps dropping the ball, even on issues you thought he cared about.

Sure, he supported No Child Left Behind. But that was a mistake, and he learned, unlike most of the people touched by No Child Left Behind. And now he homeschools seven children. Surely that counts for something! The great advantage of homeschooling kids is that you don’t have to worry that anyone is sneaking around telling them that contraceptives exist.

Even at the center of the debate, during the inevitable moment when the candidates were asked about contraception, Santorum didn’t outshine the competition. He made his usual case for the family, but Romney came in swinging too with a passionate defense of religious freedom. There was no issue where Santorum stood out.

Well, perhaps there was one.

Describe yourself in one word, CNN’s John King asked, reading a question submitted from a viewer online. “Consistent,” Ron Paul said, in possibly the greatest understatement of the evening. “Courage,” Santorum said. “Resolute,” said Romney. “Cheerful,” said Gingrich. Santorum, as usual, was the only noun in a field of adjectives.

He’s generally strong. What happened?

Was it missing the podium? Was Rick Perry, seated in the audience near Callista Gingrich, giving him the evil eye? I thought that was just Perry’s general expression.

Whatever it was, it was bad. The audience even booed Santorum for one of his criticisms of Romneycare. If they’ll boo you for that, they’ll boo you for anything.

Maybe being the GOP frontrunner is harder than Mitt Romney makes it look. But after tonight, he may have the job again.

By  |  11:52 PM ET, 02/22/2012

 
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