The Republican presidential candidates hadn’t debated for nearly a month before they took the stage in Arizona Wednesday night, and the rust showed at times in desultory exchanges and periods of drift. But we will try to remain focused on the key takeaways from a debate that revolved unequivocally around a single axis -- a competition between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum that proved surprisingly one-sided. Which leads us to the first point:
1. On a night that offered Santorum arguably his best opportunity yet to strengthen his position in the GOP race, the former Pennsylvania Senator turned in his weakest debate performance in months. The debate opened a gaping crack in the foundation of Santorum’s argument: while he has portrayed himself as a candidate of more consistent conservative belief than Romney (or for that matter Newt Gingrich), Santorum was compelled Wednesday to repeatedly acknowledge that reasons of political expediency convinced him to cast votes in Congress that seemingly violated those principles -- whether on earmarks, support for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform law, and even Title X, the federal program that provides birth control services to low-income women. He seemed especially tangled on Title X. Last week, he loudly touted his votes for Title X to rebut charges that he was a crusader against birth control; at the debate, he insisted he had always opposed the program and voted for it only because it was included in larger spending bills. (That sounds a little like being for it before he was against it). Santorum’s frequently tangled defense of his voting record drew boos at several points from the Romney-tilting crowd, and invited a typically sharp salvo against him from Ron Paul (who once again spared Romney from any criticism). Most important, Santorum’s struggles seemed to underscore the portrait that Romney is trying to paint of his leading opponent: as a typical politician too enmeshed in the Washington system to truly change it.
2. Romney, struggling to avoid what would be a crushing loss in his home state of Michigan next Tuesday, needed a good debate performance, and delivered it. As in his earlier offensives against Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, Romney was methodical, well-briefed, calm and relentless in dissecting an opponent. As the debate proceeded, Santorum had more success at counterpunching, for instance, by reaffirming his ideological case against Romney’s health care plan. But if the debate was a prize fight between the two men, moderator John King probably would have stopped it as a technical knockout in the first hour. Over the course of the debate Romney even made it appear that Santorum was the candidate most willing to bend his principles for political gain -- a remarkable role-reversal given Romney’s serial reconsideration of his positions on an array of issues over the years. A single debate can’t solve the fundamental problem threatening Romney in Michigan and other lunch-bucket states like Ohio and Oklahoma: the blue-collar, culturally conservative populist wing of the Republican party remains deeply dubious of him and shows signs of coalescing around Santorum. But certainly Romney did almost everything he could have done Wednesday night to arrest Santorum’s momentum and to raise questions about him among Republicans who are the most skeptical of business-as-usual in Washington-the conservative vanguard that polls indicate are the core of Santorum’s coalition.
3. That’s not to say the night went without risk to Romney. Some of his answers could come back to haunt him, not in the primary but in a general election, if he gets that far. At a time when some Republicans are already concerned that he has narrowed his potential support among Latinos with an unflinching embrace of conservative positions on immigration (like “self-deportation”), Romney doubled down by insisting that on “day one” as president he would drop the federal legal challenge to Arizona’s tough state statute against illegal immigration. And on the same day that an NBC/Marist poll already showed Romney trailing President Obama by 18 percentage points in Michigan, a state Republicans once hoped to contest this fall, Romney likewise doubled down on his criticism of the auto rescue engineered by Bush and Obama -- and sprinkled in some especially sharp rhetoric against the United Auto Workers union for good measure.
4. Like almost all of the earlier encounters, the debate underscored the remarkably backward-looking nature of the GOP contest. The candidates spent almost no time exploring the differences among them on the agendas they are proposing to implement as president; even the new tax plan Romney unveiled Wednesday afternoon barely got a hearing. Instead, they concentrated almost all of their fire on whether each other’s record in the past demonstrated a consistent commitment to conservative principles. That focus reaffirmed the unusual dynamic in this race: rather than looking for a leader to set an agenda, the GOP appears to be debating which candidate can be trusted to implement the agenda the party has largely settled on for itself. One reason the race has proven so volatile is that none of the leading contenders possesses a record that entirely inspires such trust, especially among the tea party activists deeply distrustful of Republicans in Washington. While those activists remain dubious of Romney, his earlier attacks on Gingrich and Rick Perry led many of them to grow disillusioned with those alternatives as well; Santorum now faces that same risk. Speaking of Gingrich, he gave a solid performance Wednesday, complete with one of his trademark attacks on the media. But nothing that happened Wednesday seemed likely to erase the dynamic that has marginalized Gingrich since his big South Carolina victory and allowed Santorum to emerge as the principal challenger to Romney.
5. In a campaign that has slogged through nine months of debates and hundreds of questions (if not thousands by now), one CNN viewer uncorked one of the most memorable inquiries of the entire cycle by asking each candidate to describe himself in one word. The answers offered an intriguing window both into how each man sees himself and how he wants to be seen. Those two dimensions probably overlapped most on Paul’s answer: few would quarrel with his self-portrayal as “consistent.” The answers from Santorum (“courage”), Romney (“resolute”) and especially Gingrich (“cheerful”) tilted, to varying degrees, away from description toward aspiration. (Cheerful might not be in the first, say, 50 words, that most Congressional contemporaries would use to describe the visionary, voluble and driven Gingrich.) As they move into the critical gantlet of contests in Michigan, Arizona and then Super Tuesday on March 6, all of the men on the stage would probably trade any of those labels for one other: winner.