By Daniel Burton
With fingers crossed that this would be their last debate together, the final four Republican contenders for president faced off in Arizona on Wednesday night. The stakes were high — for some more than others. Without Mitt Romney’s money, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich knew that this might be their best chance to pick up undecided votes in the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries.
For Romney, it was a chance to retake the lead in the race for president. Lest we forget, Ron Paul came along, too, but despite a strong performance is increasingly playing the role of side-kick to front-runner Romney.
So how did they do?
From right to left (as they sat on the stage):
Ron Paul: If Santorum expected punches from Romney, Paul was ready to get in his hits, too. “He’s a fake,” Paul said of Santorum, wasting no time pointing out that Santorum was an insider and a part of what was wrong with Congress and Washington. With Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the news, Paul also took every opportunity to criticize America’s military adventures abroad. However his message appeals, it is unlikely it earned significantly more votes, except perhaps from Santorum’s “not Romney” voters. Grade: B
Rick Santorum: For a guy who spent the first 15 debates complaining he wasn’t getting enough camera time, Santorum had his chance at the center next to longtime front-runner Romney. Although he had strong moments — especially in his closing statement, which dripped with red meat — both Paul and Romney took turns attacking Santorum for votes during 16 years in Congress, including for the No Child Left Behind Act and for funding Planned Parenthood. At one point, Santorum was visibly red as he sputtered and responded to the attacks, repeatedly admitting to the votes. Grade: B–
Mitt Romney: As the presumptive nominee (at least according to the Obama for president re-election campaign), Romney stood to lose the most. He’s polling even with Santorum in Michigan — where Romney grew up — and a poor performance could damage his lead in Arizona. However, Romney successfully marshaled facts and points to repeatedly delivered successful attacks on Santorum and Gingrich. He argued that they are Washington insiders; he is the successful businessman and turnaround expert who wants to restore the country to prosperity. Despite an average closing statement, overall the debate was Romney’s. Grade: B+
Newt Gingrich: To paraphrase Allison Kraus, Gingrich says it best when he says nothing at all. Showing his penchant for sounding intelligent saying anything substantive, Gingrich put on a happy face, made obvious overtures to the other candidates — even telling Romney “nice job” after Romney received a longer set of applause — and called himself “cheerful.” However, voters view Gingrich as anything but, and while he was articulate in criticizing the media for double standards, Gingrich was unable to steal the spotlight from Romney and Santorum’s fist fight. Grade: C+
Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas, and restaurants. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org