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Our Quartet in Tampa

On stage at the University of South Florida, Jan. 23, 2012

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Everything seems very serious, very important, very consequential now. The earlier debates — months ago — were looser. The eight or nine candidates would bounce onto the stage. Romney would greet Bachmann with a big mwah. Cain would smile brightly. 

The atmosphere was almost festive.

But now we’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty — crunch time.

Newt immediately links himself to Reagan. Remember when pundits swore the Gipper couldn’t win? he says. He also points out that Reagan’s economic program was labeled “voodoo economics.”

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That was Bush 41’s — the future Bush 41’s — line, of course. But the 1980 Republican vice-presidential nominee always had an answer to that. His answer went something like this, as I recall:

What I said was, if Governor Reagan thought he could cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the budget, without cutting any domestic spending, why, that would be voodoo economics. But then the governor made it clear that he indeed intended to deal with the domestic side.

Ancient history, I realize. (Maybe Professor Hanson should be teaching this, it’s so old.) (Actually, VDH is equally good on the ancient and the right-now.)

I know this isn’t a newsflash, but, man, is Newt a good rhetorician. Such a good talker. Extraordinary.

When his advisers left him, at the beginning of the campaign, they complained, “He doesn’t think he has to do anything. He doesn’t think he has to work. He thinks he can just show up at the debates, dominate them, and win the nomination.”

Well . . .

Newt says he will not go to the White House merely to “manage the decline.” An excellent line.

The old COS-ers used to accuse Bob Dole of being “the tax collector of the welfare state.” (COS-ers were members of the Conservative Opportunity Society, a free-market congressional group.)

Smart of Mitt to say “influence peddler” — to accuse Newt of being an influence peddler. Skirts the issue of whether he was technically a lobbyist.

When Mitt brags about himself, and criticizes Gingrich, he does it very, very badly. I mean, both of those things. He is lousy in those two modes: bragging and criticizing.

Actually, Mitt is nagging Newt — picking at him — more than criticizing him.

I have to say, Mitt looks small, and Newt big. For the first time (in my view), Newt looks mature and Mitt juvenile. For the first time, Newt looks the more presidential.

Just an impression, of course.

Santorum is really, really good when he talks about the fight he waged in 2006 — the campaign he waged that wound up losing by a million points. He stood up for Social Security reform, he stood up for the Iraq War, he stood up for George W. Bush, all in a year when those stands were electoral poison.

This is my favorite Santorum moment, from any debate.

Brian Williams doesn’t know what “begging the question” means, but then, neither do most people . . .

He also says “weekend” the British way — with the accent on the second syllable — which is interesting.

Newt makes himself out to be a coalition builder who is the soul of reason! Fun.

I’ve never seen Mitt such a stumblebum, on a debate stage. This is a low, I believe (and not a terribly low low — not Perry-esque).

Newt is in his statesman mode, a good mode for him (although he won South Carolina, by a landslide, in angry operatic mode, didn’t he?).

Newt makes his work for Freddie Mac seem quite reasonable.

He is also skillful on the issue of Medicare Part D — not an ideologue, someone who wants reasonable and helpful government, not stupid and smothering government.

People play a trick on Romney: They keep citing his dad to him. I wish he’d say, “You know, I appreciate your repeated invocations of my dad, but, you know? I admire him even more than you might. And I also knew him better. So why don’t you cut it out?”

People tried to do the same thing with the first Bush: They played gotcha against him, using his dad (the late senator Prescott). I hated that.

Mitt is asked, “What would you do about a half a million people coming from Cuba?” He never answers. I can’t really blame him, though: That question requires serious study and thought.

Bill Buckley used to say, “That question is like Peking duck: Requires 24 hours’ notice.”



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