One of the mysteries of Mitt Romney’s campaign until tonight was how could a guy with so much money not buy himself a better debate coach. But sometime between South Carolina and tonight, the private equity investor must have made the right investment. Tonight, for the first time ever in a Republican presidential debate, Romney was extremely effective, particularly in the first half-hour when he took it to Newt Gingrich on the question of the former Speaker’s scorched-earth rhetoric. He had Gingrich on the defensive for the first time since this interminable run of debates began.
For his part, Gingrich made two stabs at renewing his appeal as a culture warrior against secular, liberal, academic and journalistic elites. He tried briefly to go after moderator Wolf Blitzer, as he had after Juan Williams and John King in previous debates, but for whatever reason – Blitzer may come off as too obtuse to be a credible target – it didn’t work. Later, when all four candidates were asked about the role that their faith would play in their presidencies, Gingrich was the only one to take the opportunity to go after those above-mentioned elites, but failed to achieve truly Pat-Buchanan-like venom. It was an off night for the former Speaker, whose talents as a demagogue were underutilized.
The most interesting moment in the debate, though, came when Romney sought to defend the Massachusetts health insurance plan he signed into law against Rick Santorum’s charges that it was simply a one-state version of the national law signed by President Obama. In replying, Romney delivered a very effective defense of the universal mandate, pointing out how it was needed to offset the costs to the public of health care for the uninsured. That, as Santorum very effectively argued, is precisely the case for Obamacare, which Romney, inadvertently, defended more articulately tonight than Obama sometimes has. Romney only lapsed into his accustomed inarticulateness when he sought to contrast Obama’s law with his own. Santorum is right: Romney probably couldn’t make a plausible attack against Obamacare should he be the nominee.
But Romney’s prospects of becoming the nominee likely improved as a result of his debate performance tonight. With new polls showing that Gingrich’s momentum in Florida may have slowed, or even begun running in reverse, Romney’s forcing Gingrich onto the defensive and keeping him there stripped from the former Speaker his last chance to do his inimitable slash-and-burn before Florida Republicans go to the polls. By the standard of getting the nomination, a good night for Romney. By the standard of showing himself capable of taking on Obama on health-care reform, not so hot.
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