Romney had two wins. (1) The dullness of the debate and the lack of crowd reaction kept Gingrich from having another “moment.” Romney can ill-afford another one of those. (2) He won the Freddie exchange, which will get a lot of the post-game attention (the New York Times is calling it part of a “searing attack”). Newt simply can’t be honest about why Freddie was paying him. But Romney, as has been noted in this space, is not comfortable on the attack. You could tell when after the first segment he had shifted back into positive mode — he was immediately more fluid and at ease. He’s also the most polite attacker ever, taking care to try to be as precise and careful as he can (although I think he did jumble a few things up). Otherwise, Romney was slow and steady as usual, except for the odd interjection that he’d pay 0 percent under the Gingrich plan and his weak answer on what he’s done for conservatism.
Newt seemed haggard and someone tweeted that he might be under the weather. He showed a little too much irritation and bitchiness during the exchange with Romney at the beginning and way too much sophistry. But he didn’t sustain a big hit. He tried to steer clear as much as possible from engaging with Romney, perhaps as a way to keep him from showing his temper and to seem the above-it-all front-runner. He had some really nice answers — I’m thinking in particular of his answer to the question of what he’d most fear as president — and showed his depth of knowledge as always.
It pains me to say the loser was probably Santorum. He had good answers contrasting himself with Romney and Gingrich right at the beginning and the end, but was basically boxed out from tangling with the others in the big, boring middle of the debate. Since he doesn’t have the money of the others, the debates are extremely important to him. He needs to make a big impression, have Gingrich begin to lose a lot of altitude, or have Romney and Gingrich turn everyone off with their poisonous negativity, or preferably all three. None quite happened tonight.
All in all, a dull debate that means Gingrich’s momentum at least won’t pick up any more speed for now.