Did Rick Santorum Just Miss His Last Best chance at an Upset?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 23 2012 1:17 AM

Out of Air in Arizona

The last scheduled Republican debate ended with a whimper. Was it Santorum’s last best chance at an upset? The people in Michigan know best.

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Ron Paul, the lively elfin conscience of the Constitution, scolded Santorum after each one of these moments. Mirthful and full of delight, Paul answered the question about why he was running an ad saying Santorum was a fake by saying with a wide smile, “Because he is a fake.” Most devastating, though, was this Paul line: "He calls this a team sport. He has to go along to get along. That's the problem with Washington," said Paul. "That's been going on for so long. So I don't accept that form of government. I understand it. That is the way it works. You were with the majority. You were the whip and you organized and got these votes all passed. But I think the obligation of all of us should be the oath of office. It shouldn't be the oath to the party." 

If Santorum had highs and lows, Mitt Romney was steady, if unspectacular. As in previous debates, he came schooled on his opposition research. He is a precise debater. The formula is: attack, explain past position, explain current proposal. He got his licks in, pegging Santorum as a creature of Washington. “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ ” he said, referring to the single most infamous pork-barrel project.

His defense of his position on the auto bailout sounded plausible, though it wouldn't pass muster in a general election. He tied it off with an attack on the United Auto Workers, which will be a hit with the base. He defended women in combat (probably helpful in a debate where four white men were debating contraception). He sounded like a man in control of his brief when talking about Iran and Syria, which helps his pitch that he is the best leader of the bunch. "If I'm president that will not happen," he said of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. "If we elect Barack Obama it will."

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Newt Gingrich was a man in repose. He was relaxed in his chair. He's gotten some sleep since Florida. Asked to pick a word that described him, Gingrich said “cheerful,” and he seemed it. He didn't seem hunted, but he also didn't seem particularly hungry. He said some amusing things. He has plans. But he wasn't forceful, except when he swiped at the media for not asking candidate Obama about an infanticide bill. (He was wrong.) He sounded like a man who will make mountains of money on the lecture circuit.

The Republican debates have played such an important role in the primaries, but it was hard to see a clear storyline emerging from this one. Santorum may have blown his moment to grow, but the weaknesses that have dogged Romney remain. Gov. Romney is no more compelling than before the evening began. There are no more debates scheduled, which is a little unsettling. They’ve dotted the race like fence posts. But if they’re like the candidates in this campaign, just when you think they’re gone, they’ll come back.

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