After months of a two-steps-forward, one-step-back campaign, Mitt Romney needed to take a flying leap in Wednesday’s debate, before crucial contests next week that will determine whether he remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
The nationally televised CNN broadcast won’t quell lingering doubts about whether Romney can energize his party’s conservative grassroots, but he was certainly “resolute,’’ to use the single word he chose to describe himself in the debate. He sized up well against his chief rival, Rick Santorum, a typically agile debater who seemed to lose his train of thought at times with rambling answers. Romney also got an indirect boost from the underdog in the race, Ron Paul, whose anti-Santorum zingers were some of the most memorable lines of the night.
“Because he’s a fake,’’ Paul quipped, when asked to defend his television ad calling Santorum just that. “There’s always an excuse,’’ Paul added when Santorum defended his voting record as a senator from Pennsylvania. For Santorum, who has surged on the argument that he's the true conservative in the race, that’s a dangerous line of attack.
In contrast to Santorum’s restrained demeanor, Romney loosened up a bit. In an uncharacteristic spurt of spontaneity, he clapped and gave a thumbs up when Santorum tried to diminish him by pointing out he was constitutionally required to balance the budget as governor of Massachusetts. Romney also seized an opportunity to stroke the social conservatives who have widely resisted his campaign, condemning President Obama for interfering with “religious conscience.’’ The administration initially required church-affiliated institutions to pay for birth control in their employee health care plans, but after an outcry, it shifted the burden onto the insurers.
“We have to have a president who is willing to say that the best opportunity we can give to an unborn child is the opportunity to be born in a home with a mother and a father,’’ Romney said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Even Newt Gingrich, who has complained bitterly about Romney’s personal attacks in recent months, praised the anti-Obama tirade. “Nice job,’’ he said.
The debate in Arizona comes six days before that state and Michigan hold their primaries. Polls show fairly tight races. Romney scored points with the hometown audience by calling the state’s tough crackdown on illegal immigration, which has been challenged in court by the Obama administration, a “model.’’
But the stakes are highest in Michigan, where Romney was born and raised and where his father served as governor. After losing three contests in the Midwest earlier this month to Santorum, a defeat on his home turf would be a devastating blow. Speculation has mounted in recent days about the possibility of a contested convention if none of the current candidates musters enough delegates.
But time and again, when the former governor of Massachusetts has found himself against the ropes, he has risen to the challenge. Romney seemed most vulnerable in the debate when Santorum tried to turn the conversation back to the health care plan he spearheaded in Massachusetts, described as a blueprint for “Obamacare.’’
Romney was ready with a sharp report. You endorsed me four years ago despite my health care plan, he told Santorum. What’s more, you backed Arlen Specter in the 2004 Senate race, considered an act of treason by some Republicans since Specter later switched parties and voted for Obama’s health care plan. “So don’t look at me, take a look in the mirror,’’ Romney barked.
Santorum also found himself repeatedly on the defensive over his vote for President Bush’s education program, No Child Left Behind.
The debate got bogged down early on during a somewhat tedious discussion over congressional earmarks. In response to attacks on his own record, Santorum has tried to draw attention to Romney’s request for federal assistance when he led the 2002 Olympics. Again, Romney was ready. “I was fighting to save the Olympics when you were fighting to save the 'Bridge to Nowhere,' ’’ Romney said, referring to the infamous Alaska boondoggle.
Gingrich, the former House speaker who has widely been counted out, sat back with a smile and sighed. After 20 debates that have failed to anoint a commanding front-runner, the veteran Republican on stage seemed amused.