It has been 27 days since the last GOP debate in Florida, and tonight that debate drought ended in Arizona. In the last month, the Republican race has seen a huge shake-up in the standing of the candidates, most notably the decline of Newt Gingrich and the rise of Rick Santorum as the main challenger to Mitt Romney. With the main dialogues being between Romney and Santorum with Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) present but playing supporting roles, the debate mimicked the action that we have been seeing in both state and national polls in the last week.
The debate tonight was the last time that the candidates will have the chance to face-off not just before the primaries in Arizona and Michigan next week, but also before the Washington primary and, perhaps most importantly, Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states will hold primaries and caucuses.
Tonight, the stakes were high, and the issues were varied. Given the debate location, immigration was a hot topic, with all candidates lavishing praise on Arizona and presenting strong stances on illegal immigration and securing the border. Given recent international activity, the candidates were addressed on issues in both Iran and Syria. Surprisingly, perhaps the most heated back an forth, and the longest exchange involving all four candidates, was on the topic of earmarks, and the rather pedantic dialogue that followed was perhaps an accurate slice of the tone of the entire debate, which was much less offensive, with much fewer one liners, than the previous 19 debates that we have seen. This is likely because the candidates, at this stage in the process, know each other too well. They have moved on from arguing on largely ideological stances, and onto extremely detailed and ambiguous points. Especially from Santorum and Romney, we saw a large amount of dissembling, which led for a rather muddy and, at times, incomprehensible debate.
Given all of this, what were the main lessons we can draw from tonight’s debate?
Santorum’s moment in the spotlight. Moderator Jon King acknowledged from the start the shift in the race dynamics by addressing the opening question to Santorum. Yet this was Santorum’s debate to lose. With his growing national attention, this was his first debate in the spotlight, and performing under the pressure was likely to be critical to gaining momentum going into future primaries. Yet throughout the debate, Santorum lacked support, at many times being booed in his responses by an audience who most definitely was pro-Romney. In the defence of his positions and issue stances he was pedantic, and in explanations of his points, for example in the earmark debate, he was long-winded and convoluted. His performance improved only in the second half of the debate, when he moved away from attacking Romney and into a realm he seemed more confident in, attacking Obama. Granted, despite his slightly sluggish rhetoric, one of the better lines in the debate certainly came from Santorum, where upon Romney asking for praise for continually balancing a budget, Santorum responded that “Michael Dukakis balanced his budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States?."
Gingrich on the sideline. Tonight, the former speaker was a quiet voice. In large contrast to his debate tactics over the past few debates, Gingrich strayed away from attacking the other candidates on the stage, and focused instead on criticizing the actions and policies of President Obama, perhaps in an attempt to continue to line himself up as the nominee most able to beat the sitting president. In on particularly striking moment, Gingrich described Obama as the most “dangerous U.S. president on national security issues in American History."
Allies at last? One of the more striking reoccurring themes of this debate was the extent of agreement that the candidates seemed to voice with one another. Romney seemed to lead the troops on this one, stating on many an occasion that he “agreed with Rick," before going on to clarify, or at many times simplify, the previously stated position. Gingrich, too, when not attacking Obama, chose instead to take this approach as well.
Who won? Even within the first half an hour of the debate, it was obvious that the crowd was strongly behind Romney, a fact audible in the volume of the applause, and in the many boos that Santorum received in his answers (something which was significant when the former Senator brought up the issue of Romneycare, a slogan which did not go down well with the Arizona crown). Again and again, the rhetoric of Santorum fell flat and did not resonate. Indeed, the crowd also took much more the straight-talking Paul than to the more convoluted Santorum. Gingrich gained support for traditional conservative views he expressed, such as those on religion and foreign policy, yet was not a loud enough voice during the two hours to really enter the running for debate success.
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When asked to describe themselves in one word, the candidates chose the following: Paul was "consistent" (garnering the most applause), Santorum stumbled up "courage," Romney was "resolute," and Gingrich self-described as "cheerful," something which caused the audience to crack a rare laugh at the speaker. Moving forward, it might be an interesting exercise to keep these self-depictions in mind as the next 13 primaries pan out before the end of March 6.