Mitt lost the Bigfoot vote, and perhaps the felons-who-are-voting vote, but batted away the Bain and super-PAC attacks with ease and delivered some superb general-election answers. Newt regained ground — and then gave it back. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum made steady progress — after the felons stuff, which just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. (In eleven years with a nationally syndicated talk show, I don’t recall the subject ever coming up, so it simply cannot be salient in any meaningful way.)
The biggest loser of the night was Ron Paul, who gave his supporters many reasons for deserting him as just too far out of the mainstream to comfortably expend a protest vote. Paul suffers whenever the talk turns to foreign affairs, which — thanks to the able moderating of Bret Baier — it did at key points. Santorum also undressed Paul on gun rights, and opposing the liability protections puts Paul in the category of defending a Second Amendment which would protect only guns that wouldn’t be made because of tort-law machinations of the trial bar.
Romney revealed that he will make his tax return public in April, timed to a general-election strategy that he is clearly running, and running successfully. The New York Times’ data wizard Nate Silver put the probability of Romney’s nomination at 98 percent today, and Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress said on my show tonight the Romney nomination is “inevitable.” To stop such a strong tide flowing requires not just the good performances turned in by Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, it would also require at least one of the three to falter to create room for growth by one of the other two to offset the bump Romney expects to gain from Huntsman voters coming his way. That didn’t happen tonight. Romney won by not losing, a fact that may be recognized by enough on-the-fence voters (who want to support the winner) to improve his numbers heading into the last debate. His best answers were on the continuing threat from jihadists, on searching out and killing our enemies, and on the correctness of the detention provisions, but he did fine throughout — though some in the Twitterverse thought him caught out on the felon-vote exchange. (Really, how many South Carolina GOP primary voters care about that?)
The clock is running out on everyone but Romney, and the Romney lead didn’t diminish tonight.
Minor memo to all debate organizers: Instead of starting with the process/political questions, start with the war-and-peace questions, the 9/11 questions, and the Iran questions. These are the presidential questions and they will build audience, not lose it.