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.

Arizona debate.
Did Rick Santorum perform well enough to overtake Mitt Romney during the final GOP debate?

Justin Sullivan

The 20th and perhaps final Republican presidential debate wheezed across the finish line and collapsed. At times it felt like the candidates had already talked themselves out on the big themes and could only bicker over table scraps. There was a long symposium on how earmarks and the congressional appropriating process work. Then, there was a confusing discussion of Arlen Specter, his re-election, and the judiciary committee. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Who won? Ask the undecided Republicans in Michigan. They count the most tonight. Though the debate was held in Arizona, and there were some sturdy local panders to the state's immigration law, the most important audience was in a state 50 degrees cooler. In Michigan, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are neck and neck in the polls. If Romney wins that state next Tuesday, his campaign will remain alive. If he doesn't, his campaign will slip into critical condition. Going into tonight's debate Romney was inching ahead of Santorum and on his way to a narrow win. Nothing in the debate would suggest a change in that trajectory. A decline in Santorum's standing may give Romney a bigger margin. 

Rick Santorum used to complain about being left out of debates. He was in the center of this one and he missed his moment to shine. He fared better when he was on the periphery, jockeying for position and demanding attention. He was in a defensive crouch for much of tonight’s debate, fending off attacks on his tenure in Washington and his conservative credentials. Depending on how voters process the debate, it was either a middling night for Santorum or a bad one. 

If you believe that all you need in a debate is one good moment—because that's what people will see on the cable news loop—Rick Santorum arguably had two of them. He defended his comments about contraception effectively and passionately, citing the instability of the American family in which “children are being raised by children.” This is Santorum on social issues at his best for Republican audiences: from the heart, trying to help and not sounding like an intruder in the bedroom. He also clobbered Mitt Romney on his health care plan again. Though, at this point, it's hard to see how there's any new advantage to gain on that well-trod ground.

The problem with these good moments is that it's hard to see how they help Santorum build a coalition outside of the evangelicals or those who identify themselves in exit polls as strongly conservative. In his opening remarks, he talked about offering a "positive vision," but there was nothing positive from Santorum tonight. In fairness, none of the other candidates offered the lift of a driving dream either, but the other candidates didn't need to as much as Santorum did.

The darker view of Santorum's night is that he fully inhabited the Washington insider caricature that Mitt Romney has been trying to paint. He was every inch a senator. It's surprising he didn’t bring a spittoon on stage. First, he got stuck in the swamp of defending earmarks. The crowd seemed like it would applaud anything, but when Santorum explained his support of earmarks the hall remained silent. At one point, in trying to explain away how he had voted for funding Planned Parenthood—it was part of a much larger spending bill—he said meekly, "I had to vote for some big appropriations bills." That does not sound good coming from a man who has built his campaign on conviction.

Later, Santorum explained how his support for moderate Republican Arlen Specter was part of a negotiated deal to support conservative nominees. It made sense if you were listening and had covered Congress. But to anyone else—including those independent voters in Michigan—it sounded like a classic backroom deal. Then, to apply superglue to the insider flight suit he'd zipped up, he described his support for No Child Left Behind as being a team player with a Republican president. "I have to admit I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in. But, you know, when you're part of the team sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader."

Honest! So is saying, “I have a personal moral objection (to contraception), but I’ve voted for bills that included it, too.” But this is very confusing coming from the candidate running as the principled man who will not bend. You can imagine the Romney team stringing together some of these rationalizations to make a devastating ad.

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."

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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