Conservatives who are still looking for a Romney alternative could find something to like in Perry’s call to return power to the states, his call to end the “war” on the states from federal regulations, and his defense of Marines condemned for urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters killed in battle.
Santorum, who seemed to disappear from the stage at times, had moments of command. He pressed Romney on his record in Massachusetts and Gingrich on his Social Security plan. He wasn’t stellar, and not nearly as good as he needed to be to become the front-runner in the non-Romney race, but if you were a Santorum supporter he didn’t do anything to make you jump ship. (Only Paul had a bad night; at times, explaining his positions on defense spending and killing Bin Laden, he meandered.)
Romney was at his best when he talked about his years working at Bain Capital. At the very start of the debate, Gingrich was on his heels as he defended his series of attacks on Romney’s history at the company. When Romney got his chance to rebut he simply stood up for capitalism. It was an open stretch to sing the praises of free enterprise. When Rick Perry knocked him for a steel plant that closed in South Carolina, Romney gave a perfect response about how foreign dumping had changed the market and caused 40 American plants to close. It was because of experiences like that, fighting unfair foreign-trade practices, Romney argued, that he understands how the economy works.
One of Romney’s weakest moments came when he seemed to be uncharacteristically without a four-point answer to a question. Rick Santorum had pressed him on his views about allowing felons to vote once they have been rehabilitated. Santorum was in command of the moment, and Romney seemed to be playing for time, unsure of what he was going to say. Finally, Romney said he was against letting violent felons vote even after they’d served out their sentences.
But Romney’s worst moment came when he was pressed on his tax returns. His answer was all waffle. Here’s a snippet: “You know, if [releasing returns in April has] been the tradition, and I'm not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I'll keep that open.” Actually, he’s being asked about it now. And if he’s open to doing it in April, why not release them now? If you watched just the answer it would confirm every stereotype about Romney as a vacillator. The good news for Romney is that people probably don’t care about his tax returns. They know he’s in the 1 percent. Candidates who go on about it are likely to seem out of touch.
In a Republican race that has always been about conviction and heart versus Romney’s calibrated competence, this was a big night for Newt. He won not by tearing Romney down but by building himself up. His challenge will be keeping himself in check so that he allows his performance to stand and doesn’t veer off into the zany with a remark that requires several days of explaining. All he has to do is make it through two more days. Then Gingrich will be back on stage Thursday with his rivals, two days before the Saturday vote. It might be the last best shot they have at denying Romney the nomination.