The Mesa Debate
GOP showdown in the Grand Canyon State

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney argue during the CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz., February 22, 2012.


Rick Santorum appeared defensive, angry, and frustrated. He has two problems. The smaller one is that he is overanxious to leap to defend his own record at length.  This makes him look defensive, but also — even worse — backward focused. Someone should tell him: “Any time you are worried about defending yourself, you are focused on the wrong question. It’s not about you and your past, it’s about the future of this country.”

Get out of egoism, Rick, it makes you look smaller than you are.

The way to respond to the extended earmarks-type debate is just to say:  “Yes, I earmarked, like every single senator did back then. The American people are going to have to decide how important that stuff back then is to them now, especially compared with voting for the guy who paved the way for Obamacare. I endorsed Romney in 2008 because I thought of the two men running he was the best option at the time. I don’t think that this year! Between me and Romney, I don’t think it’s a close call on who you can trust to govern as he runs, as a conservative who will stand up and fight for our values.”

The bigger issue: Santorum needs to show he can put the contraception issue to bed. Now. Rick’s attempt in this debate was ineffectual spin city. “Why did you say you wanted to talk about contraception last fall?” He answered with some riff about “well I meant children having children, family breakdown.”

Oh dear. Rick is very bad at fibbing. He looks very uncomfortable when he’s doing it. Rick needs to just tell the truth, maybe give an interview with a female print journalist. “I’m a Roman Catholic. Maybe not every Catholic accepts all the teachings on natural family planning, but my wife and I do and we try to live our faith. Anybody who doesn’t want to vote for a faithful Catholic, well they probably won’t be voting for me. Most people in America don’t find the idea of voting for Catholics scary any more, thank goodness.”

So why did you say you wanted to talk about contraception and its harms as president?  “Look, I don’t recall that conversation in detail but clearly I must have been a little enthusiastic. I do understand the people of the United States are not voting for me to be Preacher in Chief, they want a Commander in Chief who can be trusted to protect the country, get this economy going, and have a plan that respects every human life, and every man and woman’s human dignity. We need to stay focused on the issues voters care about, not a media firestorm.”

The next time they ask, he should say again, “Listen, I’ve answered that question. This is not what the voters are interested in. This election is not about contraception, Governor Romney was right, nobody wants to ban contraception, that’s a made-up issue. But it is about President Obama’s economic incompetence and intrusion on liberty, including religious liberty. People want a Commander in Chief who will fight for their values and get the country back to work.”

— Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. She has endorsed Rick Santorum.

Rick Santorum, who has had great debate performances throughout this cycle, may not have had his best night tonight, but he also had the farthest to fall. Romney likely benefited from Santorum’s record-defending, which just made Santorum look like an insider. But Santorum and Romney together made the predominant storyline — that these men are all sex-obsessed — harder to sustain, because they put the debates about the family in an economic and cultural context.

 Newt Gingrich can be spectacular, can’t he? Has CNN ever heard such a clear and honest exposé on Barack Obama’s record on infanticide?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

They were all on their game, so it will be hard to declare winners and losers. Santorum had some tortured answers on earmarks and Specter, but he delivered his responses well and otherwise was strong. He has developed a more confident persona than the whiny person from last summer, and he took every attack in stride, often with a Reaganesque smile and shake of the head. Romney was best when he was answering questions directly, showing knowledge, confidence, and analytical skills. His answers on religious liberty seemed heartfelt, something that may help a little in reducing his authenticity gap. He was less confident in his attacks on Santorum, stumbling in places and looking at notes in others. Newt was in rare form, keeping on message and recalling the elder statesman who rocketed to the front of the race in the fall. And Ron Paul was Ron Paul — if you are open to his combination of Taft-era conservatism and modern libertarianism, you would have been persuaded last night that he’s for real.

Bottom line: Santorum held his own and showed he belonged on center stage. That’s really all he had to do last night, which means the race will continue to be tight over the next week or so.

— Henry Olsen is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative.


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