It wasn’t close. Mitt Romney effortless flicked away his competitors, put George Stephanopoulos in his place for endlessly dwelling on whether states have the right to ban contraception ( I am not kidding), defended his experience in the private sector and seemed looser (and more human in his incredulity at the silly questions) than he has in prior debates. His opponents had occasional moments of brilliance but were plainly not up to the task of knocking him off his stride.
But first, a word about the ABC moderators. They were, in a word, horrendous. They fixated on gay marriage and contraception for far too long. Inadvertently, they turned the debate into a showcase on media bias and inanity. They missed critical follow up questions (on Rep. Ron Paul’s racist newsletters). They did not manage to engage Romney and Rick Santorum, his strongest rival.
Aside from drop kicking Stephanopoulos over the fence on contraception ( None of the states want to ban contraception, George!), Romney gave a solid defense of his Bain experience, bashed President Obama on his irresponsible defense cuts and generally refused to attack the candidates straining to catch up to him. He gave a reasoned argument in opposition to gay marriage, explaining the consequences for churches and adoptions, while defending the right of gay partners to form loving bonds short of marriage. He gave a stirring riff with about a half hour to go in the debate, telling the audience the election was about the soul of America. He was on the side of immigrants seeking opportunity; Obama is moving the country toward Western European socialism. It was more impassioned than his usual stump speech. (Gingrich and Santorum had to agree it was a vision they shared.)
In Romney’s explanation of his China policy, he turned the knife into Jon Huntsman, pointing out he had served the president while others on the stage were working to elect Republicans.
Moreover, Romney benefited tremendously by the other candidates attacks on one another. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) went after Newt Gingrich for ”being a chicken hawk.” When Gingrich pleaded his dad was in the military, Paul slapped him down, saying he was married, had two kids and still served. Paul went after Rick Santorum for earmarks and supposedly backing ”big government.” Santorum retorted with a summary of his record and was all too happy to point out “I’m a conservative, not libertarian.” And all the while Romney smiled, content that none of the candidates had demonstrated the skill or moxie to take him down a peg.
Other candidates did have their moments. Perry — honestly — had his best debate to date, although was excluded from the questioning for long stretches of the debate. He slammed Obama for defense cuts, said he’d send troops back to Iraq so the lives lost would not be in vain, and gave a strong answer on energy. He seems less tense, but perhaps more resigned in this setting. He in all likelihood is coming in last in New Hampshire and he knows it.
Gingrich’s attacks on Romney were muted and rare. He had a quintessential Newt remark about the bias of the moderators, accusing them of asking questions about discrimination against gays but ignoring Obama policies’ adverse impact on the Catholic Church. He did not however stand out in the crowd.
Santorum had a strong night. He explained the role of the U.S. in aiding the aspirations of the Iranian people who are seeking freedom. He defended his record against attacks he was a phony conservative. He got a chance to set out his tax plan. He did not however succeed in getting Romney to engage with him. He has another chance in tomorrow morning’s debate and should make the most of it.
Huntsman remains a prickly and condescending figure. He had to show off by speaking in Chinese, a cringey moment. He recited his ”bring the troops home” mantra and unsuccessfully tried to tweak Romney on the latter’s confrontational stance toward China. He demonstrated no personal charm, and gave voters little reason to pick him out of the also-rans.It remains a mystery how he was a successful state politician.
As for Ron Paul, he largely avoided his crackpot foreign policy views. He dodged rather obviously a question on how those newsletters went out under his name (no follow up by ABC moderators). But mostly he made things difficult for the other not Romney candidates and chewed up the clock, never himself going after Romney.
The winner: Romney, hands down.
The loser: The ABC moderator team and Huntsman (who hopefully will be gone from these debates soon).