Nine Takeaways From the Arizona Debate

Nine Takeaways From the Arizona Debate

By Carl M. Cannon - February 23, 2012

MESA, Ariz. -- They needled each other for the better part of two hours, ran roughshod over the moderator, and occasionally bent the facts to suit their narrative, but when the 20th Republican presidential debate of 2012 ended Wednesday night neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum had done much to alter the arc of this unpredictable campaign.

Then again, in this mercurial race it has never been easy to gauge the reaction of Republican primary voters. The last time CNN’s John King moderated one of these tilts, Gingrich turned a question about his checkered marital past into a boomerang that nearly decapitated King and led to a runaway Gingrich victory in South Carolina -- the former House speaker’s only win so far.

But now, with pivotal primaries next Tuesday here in Arizona and in Romney’s home state of Michigan, polls show Santorum and Romney locked in a head-to-head battle in both places, with Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul stuck in the second tier.

If the much-hyped debate didn’t live up to its billing, and didn’t do anything to change the pecking order, it did leave impressions of each candidate that were not always flattering, and not always “on-message,” as political handlers might say. Here are nine examples:

1. Mitt Romney may look like a choir boy, but he’s not. Taking direct aim at Santorum’s claim to be the one true conservative in the race, Romney went after Santorum’s bona fides on a host of fiscal issues, ranging from his frequent requests for Pennsylvania-centric earmarks when Santorum represented the Keystone State in the Senate to his votes to raise the debt ceiling.

“While I was fighting to save the Olympics,” Romney said pointedly to Santorum while the two sat beside each other, “you were fighting to save the ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ ”

And in something of a bank shot, Romney also sought to pin the passage of “Obamacare” on Santorum -- on the dubious grounds that Santorum supported former fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004 over the much more conservative Pat Toomey in the Republican primary. Specter, in Romney’s telling, was the all-important 60th vote in the Senate for President Obama’s 2010 health care bill.

“So don’t look at me,” Romney told Santorum. “Take a look in the mirror.”

2. Ron Paul may look like a kindly old man, but he’s not. When King asked Paul why he was running a new television advertisement calling Santorum “a fake,” Paul replied quickly, “Because he’s a fake.”

Sitting beside Paul, Santorum tried to lighten the moment by touching his own skin, looking at Paul, and saying, “I’m real, I’m real.” Paul responded by saying sarcastically, if incongruously. “Congratulations.”

3. Santorum sounded defensive. Lyndon Baines Johnson used to say, “If you’re covering your ass, you’re losing your ass,” and Santorum seemed to be covering his most of the night. If Romney played the role of relentless prosecutor, Santorum came across as a defendant -- who seemed shrill while sticking up for himself.

To be sure, Santorum got off some good lines. When Romney took credit for balancing the budget when he was governor of Massachusetts, Santorum pointed out that the Bay State’s constitution requires the budget be balanced. “Don’t go around bragging about something you have to do,” Santorum scoffed. “Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don’t think so.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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