The Romney team is plainly having a field day with Rick Santorum’s debate comments. A steady stream of releases have highlighted the more egregious slips from last night. This statement is at the top of the gotcha list: “I supported No Child Left Behind. I supported it. It was the principal priority of President Bush to try to take on a failing education system and try to impose some sort of testing regime that would be able to quantify how well we’re doing with respect to education. I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks.”

For a candidate who is not running as a conviction candidate, this wouldn’t be so bad. But for Santorum it is devastating. In Phoenix, Romney poked fun at Santorum’s explanations for his voting record:

As Michael Medved noted, Santorum’s performance was problematic because he “didn’t come off as a nutty religious fanatic in the CNN debate, but as a typical politician who compromised his way through an unexceptional congressional career — which may hurt his candidacy more.”

Ironically, this is similar to the malady that struck Newt Gingrich. Newt posed as a rabble-rousing, anti-establishment type to Romney’s right. His actual record, complete with support for the individual mandate, proved to be otherwise.

We’ll see how problematic the debate really was for Santorum.But if Romney’s narrative — Santorum’s just another pol — prevails over Santorum’s message — “I’m a principled conservative” — it will be dicey for Santorum. It is a problem when even sympathetic social conservatives like Maggie Gallagher pan the performance. (“Rick Santorum appeared defensive, angry, and frustrated. He has two problems. The smaller one is that he is overanxious to leap to defend his own record at length. This makes him look defensive, but also — even worse — backward focused. . . . Get out of egoism, Rick, it makes you look smaller than you are.”) But one debate does not an election make. This race has many more rounds to go.