Tonight’s Debate

by Michael Medved

For GOP presidential debaters, the 17th time seems to have been the charm. Remember all the derisive comments about previous encounters? “The circus has come to town!” sneered skeptical pundits, or, “It’s the political equivalent of the cantina scene in Star Wars!”

This time, no more sneering, no more dismissal. Three of the four remaining candidates on the stage — Romney, Gingrich and, yes, Ron Paul — looked and sounded credibly presidential and they all advanced their candidacies. Congressman Paul in particular delivered the strongest performance in his career — and may make me regret having designated him “Dr. Demento” on my radio show. Sure, he’s still crotchety and eccentric, but with his slower delivery (which he explicitly acknowledged in the course of the evening) and his good-humored demeanor he came across this time like a lovable grandpa rather than a crazy uncle generally confined to the attic. On every issue, Dr. Paul provided persuasive and thoughtful answers. Fortunately for him, the questioning almost entirely avoided foreign policy.

Both Romney and Gingrich (the two obvious frontrunners) seemed especially formidable — with Newt more human and sympathetic (especially when defending himself against challenges on his dismal marital history) and far less bombastic than ever before, and Romney projecting passion, confidence, and affability more than ever before. In particular, he left behind the sometimes tentative, halting responses in Monday’s debate, though he still needs to provide a date certain (before the end of February, certainly) for releasing his tax information.

The big loser: Rick Santorum, whose insufferably sanctimonious demeanor answered all questions about why social conservatives have begun to coalesce around Newt Gingrich rather than the former Pennsylvania senator. His decision to issue smug, full-bore attacks on every one of his rivals backfired badly. He ended up playing the role of skunk at the garden party, more eager to snicker at opponents than to make an emotional connection with the electorate. Any chance for Santorum to reverse recently plummeting poll numbers vanished with this debate. Paul, as always, made clear that he cared most about his small-government ideals and advancing his notion of constitutionalism; Romney and Gingrich showed a near-obsessive (and appropriate) focus on defeating Obama; but Santorum concentrated on showing that his fellow contenders didn’t count as “conviction conservatives” and that he boasted the purest record of them all.

The public doesn’t care primarily about finding the “true conservative”; the people want somebody who can come to Washington to clean house, to fix the mess, and to get the government functioning more acceptably again. As decent and admirable as he may be, that somebody won’t be Rick Santorum.

And meanwhile, did anyone other than late-night comedians lament the absence of Rick Perry?

— Michael Medved, a nationally syndicated talk-radio host, is author of The 5 Big Lies about American Business