But things were different in Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday.
If the Mitt Romney who usually shows up at debates is Clark Kent, then the Mitt Romney who showed up on Thursday night, was — Clark Kent, but after some very astute debate coaching.
Romney did stagger once or twice as he spoke about his “blind trusts” and “trustees” and accounts in Switzerland. But would it be a Republican debate if it didn’t include at least one reference to Saul Alinsky (Gingrich, sneaking it in seconds before the buzzer sounded) and one heated debate about Swiss bank accounts and trustees that made the rest of us angrily gnaw our poorly assembled IKEA coffee tables and mutter about the 1 percent?
Newt, accustomed to coasting to the top of the class by reciting the same six words of the Declaration of Independence over and over again, seemed startled by this Romney 2.0. In general, Gingrich drifts through debates in a manner reminiscent of a blimp. In this case, it was a blimp with “Hindenburg” lettered on the side.
If he’s hoping to get elected on his ability to beat President Obama in a debate, he’d better start coming up with a better debate strategy. Critiquing the moderator has officially gotten old. When Gingrich tried his usual strategy of blaming the person asking the questions for suggesting that he stand behind things he’d said earlier, even Romney managed to call him out on it. “If this were really fair,” Newt implied, “I would just get to talk and you would listen respectfully as I informed you of the True Nature of Things.” It went over less well in Florida. Maybe he could refuse to attend any debates that aren’t Lincoln-Douglas?
Rick Santorum had a good evening, if any evening where Rick Santorum yells at you a lot can be considered a good evening. But he got his points across. And he’s apparently friends with the governor of Puerto Rico, which is – I guess – a plus? Possibly the reason Santorum’s night went so well was that his mother was in the audience, which is the recipe for either a terrible or a great debate, depending on your filial impulses. Maternal encouragement tended to help Hamlet and Oedipus but hamstrung Norman Bates.
I was almost warming to him, but then he explained that global warming was a hoax and I felt ice starting to form again.
Ron Paul managed to solidify his position as the class clown. He is possibly the only person in the field with a sense of humor that is neither mean nor nonexistent. Asked what he’d do if Castro called, Paul quipped, “I’d ask what he was calling about.” Would his wife be a good first lady? Well, sure, she’s done a pretty good job being married to him for 54 years (making it past the paper to the gold anniversary, no doubt to Paul’s relief), and she wrote the Ron Paul cookbook!
This question came from the wife-off. In this portion of the debate, Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates which of their wives would make the best first lady. Romney waxed fairly lyrical about Ann. Callista wasn’t even Newt’s first lady, so he gave a meandering answer about her capacity for art. Santorum, having a good night, noted that he loved his wife because she’d written a children’s storybook about politeness. Most people love their wives in spite of that, so I think he won that round. Callista has also written a storybook for children, but compared to the 895,000 books for All Ages by Newt, this somewhat pales, and Newt seemed to say so by his demeanor.
The wife question was followed by a question about who was closer to Ronald Reagan, leading me to fear that the follow-up would force the candidates to choose between Reagan and their wives, the Republican version of Sophie’s choice.
But it was a good night for Mitt. Even religion didn’t faze him. Would religion impact their decision-making as president, an audience member inquired. Ron Paul’s only God is the Constitution, so this was easy for him.
Newt said that he deferred in his decision-making to a power beyond mere humanity: Newt Gingrich.
Mitt said that he was going to spread the word of God to other nations, but not in a creepy, invading way, just through — other things.
Rick Santorum explained that he and God are as close as can be, and that if elected he will put God back into the White House, Christmas, Flag Day and everyone’s womb, where God belongs.
The Romney Attack Machine, after Monday night’s non-starter, had had a good two days in the shop and was revved up and ready to go. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s usual debate performance had apparently signed off and gone to check on his moon colony.
And Romney needed this.
There are some things money can’t buy. But for everything else, there’s debate coaching.