The Campaign Spot

Too Many Cliffhangers in the Debate Show’s Season Finale

The Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt features Chris Christie on a tear, the great Mark Edward Taylor, author of Branding Obamessiah and National Review cruiser, analyzing the “monster lighting” on Rick Santorum at a recent event, and, of course, a big debate wrap-up:

And Now, the Dramatic Season Finale of . . . ‘The Republican Debates’

Bobby Ewing in the shower on “Dallas.” Agent Cooper staring into the mirror and seeing BOB in “Twin Peaks.” Fringe’s dramatic introduction to a world where recent history played out quite differently. Locutus.

The bar is set high for shocking season finales, but the year’s breakout prime-time ratings hit, the Republican Presidential Primary Debates, aimed to offer a grand finale.

The Debates have been one of television’s longest-running series (or at least it feels that way) and they have delivered on programmers’ promises of a thrill ride of twists and turns: Tim Pawlenty’s hesitation on using the “Obamneycare” attack in the second episode. Rick Perry’s sudden amnesia. The revelation that Jon Huntsman had been briefly replaced by a lookalike that only spoke Chinese. The back-to-back episodes where Newt Gingrich went rogue and pursued his own vendetta of vengeance against moderators Juan Williams and John King. The series took a positively David Lynchian-twist when George Stephanopolous revealed a bizarre obsession with the candidates’ alleged secret plans to ban contraception, and Diane Sawyer’s loopy, nonsensical night driven senseless by cold medicine.

Occasionally the writers would phone it in, like two episodes ago with a Brian Williams-centered episode that droned on and on and was completely devoid of action. And a lot of viewers have argued that the series should shift away from the protagonist of Mitt Romney, suggesting he’s too bland, uninteresting, and doesn’t pack enough punch to be the series hero that viewers are demanding.

Wednesday night didn’t quite offer the game changer some viewers hoped for. And the mysterious “Brokered Convention”/“Mysterious Figure in the Wings” plotline was left frustratingly unresolved. We should have figured they would end on a cliffhanger.

Having beaten the debates-as-television-series metaphor into the ground, on to the assessment. Romney is, bit by bit, proving to be a better debater than people thought. Yes, he’s pretty shameless about going after opponents’ inconsistencies and unpopular positions that he himself held earlier in his career – but the audaciousness of it tends to leave the opposition flustered and infuriated.

Last night, he jabbed at Santorum, “When I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere.” Really, after lines like that, people doubt Romney’s willingness to go after Obama? If nominated, Romney will probably lacerate Obama on the individual mandate, not cutting spending, insufficient support for drilling, demonizing the wealthy, and so on. Obama may coolly point out Romney’s past support for those positions . . . and I suspect Romney will just ignore it and point out that those positions are the wrong ones, and the American public opposes them. Would voters prefer the consistent man who stands for ideas they oppose? Or will they prefer a flip-flopper who currently holds the positions they support?

You and I, who have watched Romney as a passionately pro-choice candidate, bragging that he would be better for Massachusetts gays than Ted Kennedy in 1994, look at his current emphatic table pointing during these debates, and think, ‘He might just be saying what he needs to get the nomination. I don’t know if I trust him. He sounds sincere now, but Massachusetts liberals probably thought he agreed with them in 2002, too.’ But I suspect casual voters ignore anything before, say, last weekend. I suspect they put a whole lot more into a candidate’s nonverbal communication, and whether that conveys sincerity and constancy, than anything that would require them to, you know, read something. If you doubt me . . . look at Obama’s election.

Santorum’s a fighter, no doubt about it. Rip-snorting, you might say. Of course, he has two terms in the Senate full of difficult votes to explain, and during the debate he had to express contrition for No Child Left Behind, to insist the earmark process wasn’t that bad until a couple of lawmakers starting abusing it, that backing Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2004 was the right call (fighting words, from where I sit), and that bailing out the steel industry was good economic policy. Oh, and his one-word description of himself was “courage.”

Newt Gingrich had a good night. I think his answer on women in combat was fantastic. But unless something very dramatic happens, he’s going to have a bad Tuesday, and finish with no delegates. South Carolina gets further and further into the rear view mirror. As Greg Gutfeld put it, “Newt came off as the irrelevant ex-boyfriend. Still shows up at Monday bowling night, but there’s a new boyfriend, and he’s there. Awkward.”

Jeff Greenfield: “First big debate reaction: “Holy smoke! I missed the Knick blowout of Atlanta for THIS?”

Michael Graham remained unimpressed with the topic selection: “How’d ya like CNN’s excellent questions on gas prices, economy, jobs, energy, and Obama’s new $250 billion tax hike . . .oh, wait.”

Mollie Hemingway noticed, “CNN, which couldn’t find a woman to ask a question, says ‘there are a lot of women on Twitter who think these candidates are living in the past.’ Specifically, it was David Gergen who offered that assessment.”

Howard Kurtz: “A somewhat muted debate that did nothing to shake up the race. Which is good for Santorum. Romney didn’t hurt himself.”

Josh Trevino: “Tough to figure a winner this evening, but the loser was America, so there’s that.” I’ll bet it hurt to catch that glimpse of Rick Perry in the audience.

Among those who saw a Romney win, and/or a tough night for Rick Santorum:

Bob McDonnell: “Great story from Mitt Romney tonight at the GOP debate about my daughter Jeanine, the Iraq veteran. Thanks for telling the story!”

Gerry Dales detects political gravity: “Every time someone in the GOP rises to the top, they have their worst debate performance shortly after.”

John Tabin: “Not a great night for anyone, but an especially bad night for Santorum, I think.”

Kevin Eder has a suspicious mind: “Did anyone else notice that Newt and Mitt really didn’t attack each other tonight?”

“David Axelrod sent more than a dozen tweets during the debate, nearly all against Romney. I wonder why,” observes Brit Hume.

Andy Levy of Red Eye was pretty happy: “Debate grades: Romney A+, Santorum A+, Gingrich A+, Paul A+. (Note: I didn’t see it.)”

Still, some saw a reversal as the night went on. Gabe Malor: “Santorum had a really rough night, but a good finish. Romney had a good night, but his final answer was awful.”


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