January 19th Debate Highlights

I believe that tonight’s Republican debate could be the most important debate of the primary season. If Romney wins South Carolina on Saturday, then the primary competition will be all but over—it would be nearly impossible for another candidate to get ahead after that. What makes this debate extremely interesting is that it could actually be make-or-break for Romney. He had his worst debate performance on Monday—stumbling over his words on hunting and releasing his tax returns. Romney’s chief rival in the state, Newt Gingrich, had some upward momentum from a strong performance in Monday’s debate, but he’s now having problems of his own. Newt’s ex-wife has come out and given an interview on the former Speaker, who cheated on her with his current wife. These factors should make for an interesting climate in the debate, which is being hosted by CNN’s John King.

The debate opened with the question of Gingrich’s former wife claiming that Newt wanted an open marriage. Even more forcefully than usual, Newt completely lambasted the media and John King for opening a debate on such a trivial issue instead when there are so many pressing issues at hand. Not surprisingly, the crowd completed echoed Newt’s attacks on the media and even had a standing ovation for him. Gingrich flat-out denied the allegations, so right out of the gate, Newt was able to deflect the marriage attack and look strong doing so.

When the topic of Bain Capital and its business practices came up, Romney defended capitalism as usual and said that there’s nothing wrong with profit. I was surprised by Santorum’s completely populist approach on the issue, saying that he believes in capitalism for everyone. I was impressed that he took the issue of Bain’s big business practices and applied it to Americans as a whole, saying that he wants to put people back to work in manufacturing and that capitalism isn’t just for big businesses. He was trying to appeal as a great uniter, saying that Republicans need to get Reagan Democrats on-board in the message of getting people back to work. This appeal as a uniter is interesting from Santorum given his divisive comments in the past on the gay community, but it ties into my theory that he’s actually an attractive candidate when he’s not talking about social issues.

On the issue of Obamacare, Romney talked about issuing a full repeal from majorities in Congress or convincing Democrats if necessary. His plan is to treat healthcare like a competitive consumer market. Hearing Romney talk about repealing Obamacare always makes me skeptical about him just because of his similar Massachusetts plan. Santorum went directly after Romney on that plan and described some of its failings in Massachusetts, and he also attacked Newt for supporting an individual mandate as recently as 2008. When Newt said he learned it was a mistake, Santorum made another great appeal and said to choose the candidate who has always been against the individual mandate and who hasn’t fluctuated on it.

I was surprised that Romney hadn’t perfected his answer on releasing his tax returns. He was direct in saying that they would be released in April, but this time he waffled on whether only the latest returns would be released or if multiple years would be released. What should be a simple issue has been a large flub for Romney—just this week he claimed that $374,000 in speaking fees was “not very much.” He’s continuing to play into the narrative that the Democrats will portray of him.

My overall takeaway from the debate is that this was Rick Santorum’s night. The matchup in South Carolina has been between Romney and Gingrich, but Santorum was in full attack-mode tonight and reminded everyone that he’s still in this race. He had a great line directed at Newt when he said that he doesn’t want to be worrying about what the nominee says next. Despite that, I think Gingrich still did well for himself on Romney is back to performing on-par. Given that he’s already been lambasted for the tax return issue, there are no new mistakes for Romney coming out of this.

At the end of the debate, Santorum claimed that the other candidates did not provide a stark-enough contrast to President Obama, and he received a standing ovation. I’ll be interested to see if tonight’s performance can pull him up from third in Saturday’s primary.

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