Short version? Not a good night for Mitt Romney, as everyone gives solid performances. For a change, Romney didn’t stand out as the class of the field and the obvious “presidential” type. It’s important not to assume too much importance for these things, and I could easily see Romney wind up winning Iowa still – but it’s also very possible for him to finish behind any of the candidates on stage tonight, and overall he could finish as low as 4th or 5th in the caucuses.
Also, the worst set of questions in any of the debates so far.
It’s a shorter field, so I’ll take them one by one:
Romney: When your best moment is deftly diffusing a dangerous question (for him) about whether the candidates are too wealthy to connect with ordinary Americans, then you’re not having a great night. I think Romney’s strategy of going negative on Newt Gingrich at this point is a mistake (better to let Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann carry the ball on that one), and he was clearly thrown when George Stephanopolous demanded that he attack on cue early on, but if you’re going to attack, you need to do it well – and he very much didn’t. He didn’t have a lot of awful moments outside of challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet (over something that Perry was basically correct about), but overall Romney probably gave his weakest performance.
Gingrich: To my eyes, Newt gave his strongest debate performance. Now, the interesting part. Will GOP opinion leaders who don’t want Newt as the nominee be able to control the post-debate spin, perhaps ignoring his strong outing and emphasizing the others who did well? In his drawn-out back-and-forth with Romney on Israel, Newt clearly got the better of it as far as I could see. That is, in terms of what GOP audiences are liable to reward.
Perry: I’ve been saying this for a while: he’s getting the hang of this. Tonight was his strongest debate so far; he’s still not exactly good at it (he floundered around on giving his own life story), but he hit several applause lines reasonably well, stood up to Romney pretty well, and didn’t suffer from a second-half fade as he did so often in the past. If conservatives are looking for a candidate, he’s still there, and he’s not all that far out of second place in Iowa while spending tons of money there.
Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann: All did a good job at what they do. Bachmann’s hit combining Romney and Gingrich is cute, but is probably a lot less effective than if she just picked one. Paul didn’t show much enthusiasm for attacking Newt in person. And Santorum…I don’t know. Someone should count up all the time he’s wasted arguing that he’s terrific because he won in Pennsylvania, something that’s highly unlikely to be of much interest to anyone in the best of circumstances but even worse in his case, what with his crushing defeat in that same state to end his time in Congress.
And the big losers of the debate? That would be Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopolous. On the good side, they had the sense to step out of the way when the candidates were clashing, but the questions had to be by far the worst of any debate in this cycle. Hardly any straight issue questions, and lots of gotchas and politics questions, culminating in the absolute waste of time of having all six talk about whether Gingrich’s marital record is a Bad Thing.