Politics & Policy

The Mesa Debate

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney argue during the CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz., February 22, 2012.
GOP showdown in the Grand Canyon State

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.

#ad#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.



Rick Santorum appeared defensive, angry, and frustrated. He has two problems. The smaller one is that he is overanxious to leap to defend his own record at length.  This makes him look defensive, but also — even worse — backward focused. Someone should tell him: “Any time you are worried about defending yourself, you are focused on the wrong question. It’s not about you and your past, it’s about the future of this country.”

Get out of egoism, Rick, it makes you look smaller than you are.

#ad#The way to respond to the extended earmarks-type debate is just to say:  “Yes, I earmarked, like every single senator did back then. The American people are going to have to decide how important that stuff back then is to them now, especially compared with voting for the guy who paved the way for Obamacare. I endorsed Romney in 2008 because I thought of the two men running he was the best option at the time. I don’t think that this year! Between me and Romney, I don’t think it’s a close call on who you can trust to govern as he runs, as a conservative who will stand up and fight for our values.”

The bigger issue: Santorum needs to show he can put the contraception issue to bed. Now. Rick’s attempt in this debate was ineffectual spin city. “Why did you say you wanted to talk about contraception last fall?” He answered with some riff about “well I meant children having children, family breakdown.”

Oh dear. Rick is very bad at fibbing. He looks very uncomfortable when he’s doing it. Rick needs to just tell the truth, maybe give an interview with a female print journalist. “I’m a Roman Catholic. Maybe not every Catholic accepts all the teachings on natural family planning, but my wife and I do and we try to live our faith. Anybody who doesn’t want to vote for a faithful Catholic, well they probably won’t be voting for me. Most people in America don’t find the idea of voting for Catholics scary any more, thank goodness.”

So why did you say you wanted to talk about contraception and its harms as president?  “Look, I don’t recall that conversation in detail but clearly I must have been a little enthusiastic. I do understand the people of the United States are not voting for me to be Preacher in Chief, they want a Commander in Chief who can be trusted to protect the country, get this economy going, and have a plan that respects every human life, and every man and woman’s human dignity. We need to stay focused on the issues voters care about, not a media firestorm.”

The next time they ask, he should say again, “Listen, I’ve answered that question. This is not what the voters are interested in. This election is not about contraception, Governor Romney was right, nobody wants to ban contraception, that’s a made-up issue. But it is about President Obama’s economic incompetence and intrusion on liberty, including religious liberty. People want a Commander in Chief who will fight for their values and get the country back to work.”

— Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. She has endorsed Rick Santorum.



Rick Santorum, who has had great debate performances throughout this cycle, may not have had his best night tonight, but he also had the farthest to fall. Romney likely benefited from Santorum’s record-defending, which just made Santorum look like an insider. But Santorum and Romney together made the predominant storyline — that these men are all sex-obsessed — harder to sustain, because they put the debates about the family in an economic and cultural context.

 Newt Gingrich can be spectacular, can’t he? Has CNN ever heard such a clear and honest exposé on Barack Obama’s record on infanticide?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.



They were all on their game, so it will be hard to declare winners and losers. Santorum had some tortured answers on earmarks and Specter, but he delivered his responses well and otherwise was strong. He has developed a more confident persona than the whiny person from last summer, and he took every attack in stride, often with a Reaganesque smile and shake of the head. Romney was best when he was answering questions directly, showing knowledge, confidence, and analytical skills. His answers on religious liberty seemed heartfelt, something that may help a little in reducing his authenticity gap. He was less confident in his attacks on Santorum, stumbling in places and looking at notes in others. Newt was in rare form, keeping on message and recalling the elder statesman who rocketed to the front of the race in the fall. And Ron Paul was Ron Paul — if you are open to his combination of Taft-era conservatism and modern libertarianism, you would have been persuaded last night that he’s for real.

Bottom line: Santorum held his own and showed he belonged on center stage. That’s really all he had to do last night, which means the race will continue to be tight over the next week or so.

— Henry Olsen is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative.


Henry Payne

On Tuesday, a nine-month-old boy was gunned down in a hail of bullets in his Detroit home — the 43rd murder victim in Detroit in 52 days this year. This bloodbath — coming on top of 344 killings in 2011 (a staggering 49 per 100,000 population) — is the consequence of 80 percent of children being born into fatherless homes. Born of federal welfare policy, this family breakdown feeds every social pathology: a 24 percent male high-school-graduation rate, adult illiteracy, and a life of gangland crime.

Yet Democrats ignore this crisis. When Rick Santorum decried family breakdown on the Michigan campaign trail this week, the MSM jeered at him. Shame on them. Last night in Arizona, neither Santorum nor Mitt Romney shied from this crucial issue. There is “five times the rate of poverty in single-parent households,” said Santorum. “Rick is right,” added Romney. “The best opportunity for a child is to be born with a mother and a father.”

#ad#When the two candidates locked horns, however, Romney won the night. Despite his painfully slick packaging, Romney effectively made Santorum a creature of Washington — forcing the former senator to defend his legislative record. The effect elevated Romney as the outsider with the management experience to fix broken Washington. Out here in flyover country, that is a powerful difference.

— Henry Payne is a syndicated newspaper cartoonist whose work appears in the Detroit News and other publications nationwide.


John J. Pitney Jr.

The early exchange on earmarks and the budget was not especially enlightening. Mitt Romney promised that he would go through the budget line by line to root out wasteful spending. That’s good, but the “line by line” line is a golden oldie that has lost its punch through repetition. Indeed, President Obama has been using it frequently ever since the 2008 campaign. Reducing earmarks is also a good thing, but the candidates could have been more candid about the character of the problem. Despite a current moratorium on earmarks, lawmakers have found ways around it. And even if Congress and the president could devise a rat-proof permanent ban on earmarks, it would not come close to balancing the budget. In FY2010, Congress identified 11,320 earmarks with a total value of $32 billion. Although that’s a lot of money, it amounts to less than 1 percent of federal outlays.

 John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.



After 20 debates, I have a hard time saying anything new — so I can only imagine how the candidates feel. This shopworn quartet has been through a lot, and except for Paul, they’ve all had big election nights over the past two months. But judging by the reaction I saw in the crowd and on Twitter, something’s clearly missing: electricity. Maybe it was the format or the questions or the rote responses. Or maybe it’s just that this campaign has run out of gas. The only big idea emerging from it is “get rid of Obama.” That’s enough for the GOP base but not for the much broader electorate required to actually get a new president.

As for the debate itself, it’s obvious how the chips fell. Santorum had a bad night, drowning in extended, puzzling explanations of his unpopular votes on earmarks and No Child Left Behind. Romney fed Santorum’s unhappiness, needling him repeatedly, with Ron Paul’s help. (What an odd couple, Romney and Paul — and Mitt had best hope it doesn’t become an entangling alliance.) Unlike Santorum, when Romney falls victim to a good line and a legitimate attack, he has the good sense to leave it alone and change the subject. Newt was clever, knowledgeable, and even funny — but when you are running a poor third you really can’t afford to take an above-the-fray stance. Overall, Mitt was the winner by default. A default victory may be enough to grab the nomination in this particular field, but it’s certainly not sufficient to produce POTUS number 45.

— Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.



My first reaction to the Arizona debate is that any of these men would be so much better than the current president it makes me wish the election were tomorrow.

While President Obama makes speeches, these four develop ideas. While President Obama engages in class warfare, these four talk about empowering individuals, not pitting them against one another.

Mitt Romney appears to have finally hit his stride. He was prepared, on message, and more specific than he has been in previous debates. Romney was most forceful in his determination not to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Newt Gingrich had the best answer on immigration. He said that a competent government could get a border fence finished for a lot less money than government estimates of its cost, and that he wants a fence that will allow legals to come in, but keep illegals out. He was slow to start, but came on strong. He was also more “cheerful” — a word that got a laugh when he responded to a question for a one-word answer to how each candidate would describe himself. Gingrich also raised a great question on the contraception issue, wondering why the media hasn’t been as confrontational to Barack Obama, who, as an Illinois state senator, voted against a law that would have protected babies who survive an abortion. Gingrich properly called it “infanticide.”

Ron Paul continues to live in fantasyland when he suggests that Iran is not a threat and that we don’t know whether it has nukes, or is trying to acquire them. Given Iran’s relationship with terrorist groups and the clear and present danger it presents by penetrating into South America, we can’t afford to wait for it to develop a bomb and enough nuclear material to give to terrorists, or we will pay a heavy price. On this question, alone, Paul — who has other good ideas — is shown to be not qualified to be president.

Winner: Romney. Tied for second: Gingrich and Santorum. Last place: Paul.

— Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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