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.


It was the last debate before next week’s primaries. Our experts weigh in on who won and who lost.

The No. 1 takeaway from the debate in Arizona is that Rick Santorum was the loser. He came into the event riding a tremendous wave of late deciders. Instead of being prepared for obvious attacks on his record (especially with regard to earmarks), he made the terrible mistake of trying to explain a complex issue with natural-soundbite negatives to an audience who did not want to hear it. He almost dragged the whole group down, as both Gingrich and Paul attempted to clarify the matter. Romney wisely stayed the course in the role of an indignant foe of the practice. Santorum also sounded like the kind of conservative who wants to deal with government programs he doesn’t like by enacting other government programs. It didn’t play well. He will lose support. The only question is how many people were watching and how far the message will spread.

Newt Gingrich won the debate, hands down. These contests are like air to him. For his purposes, there have been far too few of late. He is the kind of professor who will always be popular with students because he is clear, concise, and great at tracing out an argument. The audience were his students. He delivered the material beautifully. Everything depends on whether GOP voters have finally settled in the belief that he is too damaged for serious consideration. If he rebounds while Santorum falls, it’s happy days for Romney again.

Ron Paul was also a winner. As usual, his consistent message resonated with GOP voters (except on foreign policy) because it is such a natural fit with their organic opposition to statism.

Mitt Romney didn’t win on points, but he won in terms of the net (“net-net”?) result. Santorum fell so badly into the trap of looking like a moderate playing conservative that he made the audience forget that they’ve assumed the same thing about the former governor of Massachusetts. Romney wasn’t nearly as exciting as Newt, but he did throw Santorum off his game. And that was just what he needed.

— Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and an associate professor of political science at Union University.

This is the most unpredictable political year in living memory. Every pundit should pound his chest and repeat, “I know nothing. I know nothing.” 

That much having been acknowledged, I think Newt had a pretty good night, though there were stretches when you forgot he was there. He donned the philosopher’s hat, and seemed less like the guy who would say absolutely anything to gain advantage.

Santorum was the big loser. The tag team of Ron Paul (serving as Romney’s attack dog in debates), who went after him on hypocrisy, and Romney, who was prepared with zingers of his own, left Santorum on defense most of the night. And his excessive self-regard came through in his choice of a one-word description: “courage.” Ouch. He came close to Kerryism — “I was for it before I was against it” — which is always a problem for senatorial types. 

With the exception of his fixed, tight-lipped smile while others were speaking, I thought Romney was excellent. He scored major points on the Detroit bailouts, and kicked the teachers’ unions for good measure. His answer on Iran was first-rate. In all the euphoria about Newt’s debating skills a month ago, people forgot that Romney is actually a very good debater. He can easily best Obama in debate. Let’s hope he gets the chance.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.