Mitt Romney attacked, Newt Gingrich bit his tongue, and not much changed in the Republican race for president in Monday night's GOP debate in Tampa.
Good morning and welcome to O-pinion, the Observer's spot for perspective and discussion. I'm Peter St. Onge, associate editor of the O's editorial pages, and I'll be your host today.
Last night's four-man debate was a more somber gathering, thanks to NBC asking the audience not to applaud after answers. The result was an event that didn't have the prizefight atmosphere of the South Carolina debates, but it resulted in some sharper, more thoughtful answers.
There was no clear winner, as each candidate accomplished what he'd set out to do. Romney got in his licks, doing what he'd previously relied on surrogates and superPACs to do - employ the Iowa strategy of reminding voters of Gingrich's troubling past. He didn't get much reaction out of Gingrich, but that wasn't the point. Romney will rarely win that kind of head-to-head exchange. All he needed was to plant seeds of discomfort, and he did.
Gingrich tried a more statesmanlike approach, resisting the temptation (barely) to go after debate questioners instead of answering their questions. There also were no Saul Alinsky references, no pining for three-hour Lincoln-Douglas debates with Obama. He was the right mix of wonk and thoughtful and, as a result, more presidential than in any other debate.
Rick Santorum, as he did in South Carolina, offered the clearest contrasts between himself and the other candidates. He was a bit shrill about the threats of Iran and Cuba, but he continued to position himself as the conservative alternative to a potential Newt implosion. Ron Paul fed off the insightful questioning of moderator Brian Williams and had perhaps his best debate, avoiding the rambling answers that force viewers to sift too much for meaning.
The winner, by a perfectly combed hair: Romney.
What did the pundits think?
Time.com's Mark Halperin also gives Romney the debate win, although no one particularly stood out in his grading. Romney ("dominated most of the night") got a B. Gingrich ("low-key, confident delivery") got a B-. Santorum ("solid isn't enough anymore") got a C. Paul ("his heart seemed less into the competition") got a C-.
The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne says Romney helped himself by showing he's no wimp, but he's undecided on the new, calmer Newt.
The conservative Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes says Romney clearly had the better moments.
His colleague, William Kristol, has a different debate winner: Mitch Daniels.
The only spectacle in American politics more off-putting than Newt Gingrich in self-righteous defense mode is Mitt Romney in self-righteous attack mode. I thought Mitt’s attacks were somewhat more dishonest than Newt’s defenses were disingenuous, but it was good to move on to the rest of the debate, where little further damage was done.
My conclusion: If Mitch Daniels’s effective tax rate is 30 percent rather than 15 percent, and if he was never paid $1.6 million by Freddie Mac, he can be the next president.