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Romney had a tough start. Santorum had a very pointed question on his decision not to run for re-election in 2006, “Why did you bail out?” Romney responded with what Newt rightly called “pious baloney.” On this question, Romney simply can’t admit the truth—he didn’t run for re-election because he might have lost and, more importantly, he wanted to run for president. Romney absurdly characterized leaving office to run for another office as returning to the private sector. I’m not sure how much voters will be outraged by any of this. They probably assume every politician wants to run for office. But the exchange got to a certain falsity in Romney’s self-presentation that plays into more important doubts about his sincerity.
The other notable exchange came at the end between Romney and Newt on the Superpac ads. Here again, Romney was less than forthcoming. He said on the one hand that he hadn’t seen the ads and then immediately related some of the most damaging charges in them (carefully leaving out one of the most dubious ones, I believe). But he made the basic point that Newt has a lot of vulnerabilities and Newt came across as too whiny and peevish. One of Newt’s drawbacks as a debater is that his worst qualities come out when he’s on the attack; he soars the most when he’s not drawing any blood.
Romney was fine when not challenged and after the ferocious beginning that was the case for most of the debate.
Santorum continues to be strong—but is he standing out enough when the other candidates are performing well, too?
Gingrich is simply terrific when discussing policy and getting beneath the premises of the questions.
Perry may have gotten the best reaction of the debate in flawlessly naming the three cabinet agencies he wants to eliminate. He has benefited from being off to the side in these debates. There’s less pressure there and he can lump the field in all together without the need to engage with anyone in particular directly. His relatively strong performances last night and this morning may help him retain enough strength in South Carolina to play what I assume won’t be anything more than the spoiler role.
Is Huntsman showing enough movement that Romney finally feels the need to slap him down, or is it simply irritation? Huntsman acted as if he had been stewing all night over Romney’s attack on him last night for serving as Obama’s ambassador to China. With Huntsman, it’s all pious baloney all the time. He made out like he was hearing nothing but outrageousness, dishonesty, and hatefulness on stage all around him. His contingent in the audience either was extremely enthusiastic or under strict orders to clap at almost all his answers.