The Adult in the Room

by Robert Costa

Jacksonville, Fla. — On the trail, Floridians hear little about Rick Santorum. In state polls, he’s languishing in third place, and as Romney and Gingrich claw each other, he has largely been forgotten, if local headlines are any guide. But tonight, here at the University of North Florida, he had an excellent debate, and asserted himself as the adult in the room. It’s probably not enough to win Tuesday’s primary, but as Iowa fades in the rearview mirror, it was necessary.

Santorum did two key things that impressed: He hovered above the Romney–Gingrich spat, urging the pair to “focus on the issues,” and he was the only contender to get under the front-runner’s skin. He also prodded Romney, like a prosecutor, about the Bay State’s health-care program, poking holes in Romney’s defense with ease, peeling apart its mandate and costs. That exchange, in the way it irked Romney, was incisive, a stark reminder of Romney’s vulnerability.

Santorum also shined in other ways, on the intangibles. In past debates, he has tended to be stiff and rushed in his responses. Tonight, from the top, he was in better form. That big grin during the introductions, when he thanked his 93-year-old mother for attending, was a warm way to begin. And his quip about Romney’s wealth — “I wish I made as much money as Mitt Romney” — reminded the audience about his blue-collar roots in western Pennsylvania.

But his focused, coherent policy responses are what will be remembered, and may intrigue Republican voters to give him another look. His tough rhetoric on Latin American dictators, for instance, blasting the “reign of terror” by the anti-American leaders in the region, was particularly strong.

“Chavez and Castro and Obama sided against the people of Honduras,” Santorum said. “This is a consistent policy of siding with the leftists, siding with the Marxists, siding with those who don’t support democracy, not standing up for our friends in Colombia, not standing up for our friends who want to engage and support America, who want to be great trading partners.” The crowd roared.

What may get the most buzz, however, is Santorum’s ability to play media foil better than Gingrich, who has used conservative suspicion of the press to bolster his poll numbers. When Romney and Gingrich argued over who was more closely associated with Freddie Mac, Santorum seized the moment, rapping CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and his competitors for going too far.

“We have been playing petty personal politics,” Santorum told Blitzer, his head shaking. “Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies — and that’s not the worst thing in the world — and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard? You guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues.” Once again, the crowd cheered.

Later, talking about space, not far from the Space Coast, Santorum showcased his seriousness on the deficit, and took care to distinguish himself from Gingrich, who remains his main challenger for the non-Romney crown. He blasted “grand schemes,” telling the crowd that “those are things that sound good and maybe make big promises to people, but we’ve got to be responsible in the way we allocate our resources.” The audience reaction was muted but respectful.

At the end, making his final argument, Santorum wrapped it all together, pulling no punches. He emphasized his differences with Gingrich and Romney, criticizing Romney for backing “top-down health care,” and Gingrich for his involvement in various bad ideas, such as cap-and-trade. Running against Obama, he said, demands someone to win independents and “Reagan Democrats.” He looked at the rest of field as he spoke, asking voters whether they could do that.

It was a sober plea. And if Romney sweeps, or Gingrich surges, it will be forgotten. But for the guy in third place, it was an effective end to a stellar performance.