I watched the Sioux City debate through the prism of National Review’s editorial urging conservatives to remove Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry from their shopping lists, while continuing to consider Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Numbering myself among the many conservatives who believe NR is right until proven wrong, I tried to figure out whether anyone on the editorial’s first list did well enough to merit serious attention. Conversely, did anyone on the second list acquit himself so poorly as to render further consideration dubious?
In the main, no one had a bad night, but no one on NR’s first list had a good enough night to justify upward reevaluation. Speaker Gingrich had several good answers, strongly delivered, but did little to dispel the fear that his planned World-Historical Figure tour is inimical to Republican prospects in 2012. His defense of accepting $1.6 million from Freddie Mac was as vigorous as it was unpersuasive.
On the other list, if Senator Santorum takes the presidential oath on Jan. 20, 2013, he will be older than 22 past presidents on the day of their first inauguration, a list including such whippersnappers as McKinley, Taft, and Coolidge. Santorum is well-prepared and earnest, but those qualities only enhance a boyishness that seems unpresidential. His low poll numbers don’t feel anomalous.
During most of 2011, the thinking had been that the GOP contest would come down to Mitt Romney and one alternative. It was never plausible that another Mormon businessman who had served one gubernatorial term would be the anti-Romney. Newt Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls, however, has raised the possibility that the race will come down to the former Speaker and one alternative to him. If the Romney trajectory is like Ed Muskie’s in 1972, and journalists start using the “dogs-don’t-like-it” joke in their stories, then Republicans who fear nominating Gingrich may embrace Huntsman.
If the Romney candidacy does fail to launch, however, it won’t be because of debate performances like the one in Sioux City. He came across as calm, steady, and affable, managing to defend himself without sounding defensive. Romney in 2012, like Walter Mondale in 1984, might actually benefit from not being the front-runner for a while, becoming instead the alternative to a candidate who, very surprisingly, becomes the front-runner, and about whom the party has deep misgivings.
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.