Some notes on Saturday night’s Republican debate:
Mitt Romney struggles to connect, again: He offers Rick Perry a $10,000 bet. He meant to prove that Perry wouldn’t put real money behind his claims — and he was right — but most people will see Romney casually wagering a fifth of the average American household’s annual income.
Romney doesn’t take the bait: In response to a leading question from George Stephanopoulos about the differences between himself and Newt Gingrich, Romney says, “Speaker Gingrich has been in government for a long time,” but then he — somewhat unexpectedly — eases off and attacks President Obama.
But then he takes the bait: Pressed to be more specific about Gingrich’s record, Romney points out that Gingrich once talked of establishing a Lunar colony to mine for precious minerals, among other things. Gingrich says he simply wanted to rekindle young Americans’ sense of possibility.
Bad news for the Romney team: Michele Bachmann attacks “Newt Romney” from the right — they were for cap-and-trade, the payroll tax cut, and so forth. Perry soon after attacks both Gingrich and Romney for favoring individual health-care mandates. Romney’s team was surely hoping that the also-rans would compete with Gingrich for the anti-Romney vote by focusing their attacks on the former speaker. Turns out that winning the anti-Romney vote involves being anti-Romney.
Trying to defuse that bomb: Romney mentions that a pro-Obama PAC attacked him for not having a core. He discredits the most powerful line of attack against him by associating it with the president.
Six of one, half-dozen of the other: Diane Sawyer asks the candidates to explain what distinguishes them from the others on economic policy.
Romney explains that he spent his life in the public sector, and that he wants to cut regulations and taxes and produce more fossil fuels in the United States.
Perry claims that he’s an outsider, and that he wants to cut regulations and taxes and produce more fossil fuels in the United States.
Newt Gingrich takes credit for economic growth in the Reagan and Clinton administrations, and explains that he wants to cut regulations and taxes and produce more fossil fuels in the United States.
Rick Santorum says that we need to care about small-town America, by cutting regulations and taxes and producing more fossil fuels in the United States.
Michele Bachmann says that she favors a “Win-Win-Win” plan, consisting of cutting regulations and taxes and producing more fossil fuels in the United States.
A dose of humility, and electoral math: Gingrich answers a question on marital fidelity by saying, “I have had to go to God for forgiveness; I’ve had to seek reconciliation.” That answer could resonate with evangelical voters in western Iowa even more than the one he would have given if he had an ideal personal history.
Campaigning for the Boehner endorsement: Romney’s skin looks fake-tan orange under the stage lights.
The bottom line: This is a two-person race right now, and it’s not just the polls saying so. Gingrich and Romney sparred repeatedly, neither landing a knockout blow but each rolling with every punch. For better or worse, and despite what Romney says about not being a lifelong politician, there were two professionals on stage.