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.


Henry Payne
On Tuesday, a nine-month-old boy was gunned down in a hail of bullets in his Detroit home — the 43rd murder victim in Detroit in 52 days this year. This bloodbath — coming on top of 344 killings in 2011 (a staggering 49 per 100,000 population) — is the consequence of 80 percent of children being born into fatherless homes. Born of federal welfare policy, this family breakdown feeds every social pathology: a 24 percent male high-school-graduation rate, adult illiteracy, and a life of gangland crime.

Yet Democrats ignore this crisis. When Rick Santorum decried family breakdown on the Michigan campaign trail this week, the MSM jeered at him. Shame on them. Last night in Arizona, neither Santorum nor Mitt Romney shied from this crucial issue. There is “five times the rate of poverty in single-parent households,” said Santorum. “Rick is right,” added Romney. “The best opportunity for a child is to be born with a mother and a father.”

When the two candidates locked horns, however, Romney won the night. Despite his painfully slick packaging, Romney effectively made Santorum a creature of Washington — forcing the former senator to defend his legislative record. The effect elevated Romney as the outsider with the management experience to fix broken Washington. Out here in flyover country, that is a powerful difference.

— Henry Payne is a syndicated newspaper cartoonist whose work appears in the Detroit News and other publications nationwide.

John J. Pitney Jr.
The early exchange on earmarks and the budget was not especially enlightening. Mitt Romney promised that he would go through the budget line by line to root out wasteful spending. That’s good, but the “line by line” line is a golden oldie that has lost its punch through repetition. Indeed, President Obama has been using it frequently ever since the 2008 campaign. Reducing earmarks is also a good thing, but the candidates could have been more candid about the character of the problem. Despite a current moratorium on earmarks, lawmakers have found ways around it. And even if Congress and the president could devise a rat-proof permanent ban on earmarks, it would not come close to balancing the budget. In FY2010, Congress identified 11,320 earmarks with a total value of $32 billion. Although that’s a lot of money, it amounts to less than 1 percent of federal outlays.

 John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

After 20 debates, I have a hard time saying anything new — so I can only imagine how the candidates feel. This shopworn quartet has been through a lot, and except for Paul, they’ve all had big election nights over the past two months. But judging by the reaction I saw in the crowd and on Twitter, something’s clearly missing: electricity. Maybe it was the format or the questions or the rote responses. Or maybe it’s just that this campaign has run out of gas. The only big idea emerging from it is “get rid of Obama.” That’s enough for the GOP base but not for the much broader electorate required to actually get a new president.

As for the debate itself, it’s obvious how the chips fell. Santorum had a bad night, drowning in extended, puzzling explanations of his unpopular votes on earmarks and No Child Left Behind. Romney fed Santorum’s unhappiness, needling him repeatedly, with Ron Paul’s help. (What an odd couple, Romney and Paul — and Mitt had best hope it doesn’t become an entangling alliance.) Unlike Santorum, when Romney falls victim to a good line and a legitimate attack, he has the good sense to leave it alone and change the subject. Newt was clever, knowledgeable, and even funny — but when you are running a poor third you really can’t afford to take an above-the-fray stance. Overall, Mitt was the winner by default. A default victory may be enough to grab the nomination in this particular field, but it’s certainly not sufficient to produce POTUS number 45.

— Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

My first reaction to the Arizona debate is that any of these men would be so much better than the current president it makes me wish the election were tomorrow.

While President Obama makes speeches, these four develop ideas. While President Obama engages in class warfare, these four talk about empowering individuals, not pitting them against one another.

Mitt Romney appears to have finally hit his stride. He was prepared, on message, and more specific than he has been in previous debates. Romney was most forceful in his determination not to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Newt Gingrich had the best answer on immigration. He said that a competent government could get a border fence finished for a lot less money than government estimates of its cost, and that he wants a fence that will allow legals to come in, but keep illegals out. He was slow to start, but came on strong. He was also more “cheerful” — a word that got a laugh when he responded to a question for a one-word answer to how each candidate would describe himself. Gingrich also raised a great question on the contraception issue, wondering why the media hasn’t been as confrontational to Barack Obama, who, as an Illinois state senator, voted against a law that would have protected babies who survive an abortion. Gingrich properly called it “infanticide.”

Ron Paul continues to live in fantasyland when he suggests that Iran is not a threat and that we don’t know whether it has nukes, or is trying to acquire them. Given Iran’s relationship with terrorist groups and the clear and present danger it presents by penetrating into South America, we can’t afford to wait for it to develop a bomb and enough nuclear material to give to terrorists, or we will pay a heavy price. On this question, alone, Paul — who has other good ideas — is shown to be not qualified to be president.

Winner: Romney. Tied for second: Gingrich and Santorum. Last place: Paul.

— Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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