The last debate before the New Hampshire primary is a wrap. Here are TRR’s five takeaways…
1. Mitt Romney will be the nominee. The base won’t love it but that has always been the case and still is. The other candidates waited too long to attack him, although a couple of them (Jon Huntsman here and Newt Gingrich here) got in some solid shots. But none of the candidates landed the death blow, in any of these debates, that seems likely to derail Romney’s ambitions. Yes, he’s drifting downward in the New Hampshire polls, closer to his traditional 25 percent (and I still maintain that he needs a 10 point or better win to stave off the talk of alternatives) but it now appears that the only real incoming Romney will take will be from the super-PACs, not from his GOP rivals. (BTW the media can fall in love with Jon Huntsman all over again after every debate, but he’s not going anywhere. That’s pretty much a certainty.)
2. Mitt Romney is full of holes, and they were exposed this morning. His performances are solid enough, but there’s something fundamentally disingenuous about his delivery, which Newt Gingrich got at with his solid “cut the pious baloney” line (which will be the takeaway line of the debate.) Romney keeps saying things like, “gosh, I’m no pol, I just decided after pursuing my passion for business that, gee whiz, I should run for governor of Massachusetts or president of the United States.” That’s so transparently false — about any politician — that it has to grate on both base voters, and general election voters. And Romney’s line about not having seen the super-PAC ads against Gingrich, followed by his spot on recitation of several attacks from those ads, feeds into the narrative of falseness that has shrouded the Romney run (though Newt is a hypocrite on that matter, too.) The reason people like Erick Erickson view Romney as a phoney, is because Romney keeps reinforcing the idea that he is a phony (along with exposing a prickly nature when confronted that’s sure to be included in the Obama campaign team’s debate notes.) In fact, Romney seems to be most at ease when saying fundamentally unpleasant, tone deaf things like he’s glad the late Ted Kennedy had to mortgage his house to defeat him, or that his dad essentially gave him the advice that one shouldn’t run for office if you’re not loaded. He will get the nomination, barring some huge unforced error, but he will have a hard time generating passion for his candidacy among core Republican constituents. That’s why Romney continually uses his airtime to attack President Obama — in hopes that the base’s distaste for Obama will overcome their lack of enthusiasm for him. It’s the exact same formula John Kerry had in mind in 2004.
3. Rick Santorum’s rise began and ends in Iowa. Santorum had some good answers in Sunday’s debate, including a very deft parry of a relatively mild gay rights question. But Santorum’s actual record as a Senator conflicts with his rhetoric today, as was exposed by a question about his support for George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D plan, which was big government at its very essence. And conservatives who know Santorum’s record are not going to stand down in reminding base voters that while Santorum certainly supports conservative notions of controlling women’s reproduction via the state, he also supported things like the “bridge to nowhere,” and other big government conservative notions put forward by George W. Bush.
4. Newt Gingrich has too much baggage to overtake Mitt. Ron Paul nailed Newt on the “chickenhawk” charge, rebutting Gingrich’s self-defense of having been a married father at the time of the Vietnam draft, by pointing out that he was one, too, and managed to serve. If Ron Paul weren’t an anti-Federal Reserve crank who pumped out racist newsletters in the 1990s and doesn’t believe the government should be a guardian of people’s civil rights, that devastating attack might actually help him (though it doesn’t appear he’s running to actually become president. a>.) Instead, it just exposes one of Newt’s many flaws. Among them: Gingrich’s pious — to use a Gingrichism — umbrage at the pro-Romney Super-PAC attacking him, while a super-PAC supporting him, with fresh cash pumped in by a casino magnate — is preparing to air a 27 minuted attack ad that will be a devastating boost to the Obama campaign, as it shreds Romney’s history at Bain Capital. And that’s not to even mention Gingrich’s long history as a partisan bomb thrower.
5. Rick Perry could emerge as the anti-Romney in South Carolina. Despite his early stumbles on illegal immigration and in the debates, his terrible poll numbers and his odd ideas (part-time Congress?) including the rote, rather tedious attacks on President Obama as a “socialist,” which would make him untenable in a general election, Perry remains the one anti-Romney who still maintains a base of support among the traditional right wing base of the Republican Party. With Santorum being, I believe, fundamentally unacceptable to the base over the long haul, if Perry can prove that his campaign can begin to be run competently, he has a chance of consolidating the anti-Romney vote, including evangelicals concerned about Santorum’s electability. But that’s a big “if.” So far, his campaign looks like a bad investment, both because of the candidate’s weaknesses on the stage, and a poor operation.