The fourth debate of the 2012 Republican presidential race is in the books!
* Mitt Romney: Four debates. Four times Romney has wound up in the winner’s circle. It’s not a coincidence. Romney proved yet again that he is the best debater in this field with another solid performance in which he effectively downplayed his liabilities on health care and accentuated his strengths on jobs and the economy. Romney played more offense than he has in previous debates, taking the fight to Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Social Security. He also got a major assist from Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), both of whom relentlessly bashed Perry. But that’s how debates work. Romney also, smartly, ignored the tea party audience in the hall — who occasionally booed him — and focused his messaging on the much broader audience of people watching the debate on CNN.
* Newt Gingrich: The former House Speaker was at his populist best tonight, repeatedly delivering one-liners that had the crowd on his side. This was the Gingrich that many Republican strategists predicted would be a major player in the GOP race when 2011 began. Unfortunately for Gingrich, he lacks the sort of campaign organization in early states that would allow him to capitalize on what was clearly a good night for him.
* Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota Congresswoman did a lot with not all that much time. Picking a fight with Perry on the HPV vaccination issue was smart and seemed to energize her for the final 30 minutes or so of the debate. There was no game-changer for Bachmann in this debate but she was far more relevant to the conversation than her no-show last week in California. Small victories.
* The Santorum-Gingrich Alliance: Who says there is no love lost between these Republican contenders? Time after time Gingrich and Santorum praised one another for their work on issues — cementing a sort of alliance that makes for an interesting (if minor) storyline going forward. Could Santorum and Gingrich be the next great tag team of the 2012 Republican race? Which bring us to....
* Professional wrestling fans: The opening of the CNN debate felt exactly like the beginning of a pay-per-view wrestling match. (Not that we would spend our hard-earned money on such things. Ahem.) From the descriptions of the candidates — “The Businessman”....”The Libertarian” — to Wolf Blitzer giving each candidate their own introduction onto the stage, it felt like a theatrical production. Which, of course, it was.
* Rick Perry: The frontrunner didn’t get it done tonight. After surviving the expected back and forth with Romney over Social Security, Perry seemed to let his guard down a bit when the subject turned to his executive order on the HPV vaccine. Big mistake. Bachmann lit into him and Santorum jumped on too. (Romney said nothing but had to be thrilled with the development.) Perry tried to emphasize that he was acting to save lives but it didn’t sell. Following that exchange, he looked flustered and missed a chance to go after Romney in a more meaningful way on health care. And Perry’s answer on illegal immigration drew boos from the audience. Looking for a silver lining for Perry? He demonstrated a willingness to clean up self-created messes on both Social Security and his “treasonous” remark about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
* Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor started with a Kurt Cobain joke....and went downhill from there. After a very solid performance in California last week, Huntsman regressed badly — bouncing between bad one-liners and outright snark. At times he seemed to disappear from the debate completely and when he did get a chance to speak, Huntsman seemed more interested in winning a laugh from the audience than making a point. Not good.
* Ron Paul: We wrote earlier today that the tea party debate might be a moment for Dr. Paul. Or not. Paul often felt like an afterthought and when the conversation turned to foreign policy Paul got lustily booed by the crowd — and attacked by Santorum — for his views on the post-September 11 landscape. Paul’s answer — and his refusal to back down — made clear that he simply isn’t within the mainstream of Republican thought on the issue, making any growth beyond his base very difficult.
* 90-minute debate fans: Is two hours the new normal for debates? The Fix is no spring chicken and these long debates are robbing us of our precious beauty sleep.
More on PostPolitics