Analysis and reaction to GOP debate in Arizona

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The Republican debate in Arizona was easily “one of the worst of the presidential campaign,” says Taegan Goddard of the Political Wire.

Mitt Romney was armed with opposition research on Rick Santorum but didn’t come close to a knock out. The audience — which was definitely slanted towards Romney — helped cover for many clumsy mistakes. His attempts to throw red meat to conservatives exacerbated his in-authenticity. Nonetheless, Romney did not lose and at the very least held his ground.

Additional reactions:

Santorum acted as though he was still a non-contender. It’s almost as if he decided in the middle of the debate to run for vice president instead. He also showed how hard it is to run for president with a U.S. Senate voting record. However, he did real damage to Romney in their heated exchange on RomneyCare.

Newt Gingrich scored many points but it’s unclear how he gains against either Santorum or Romney. In the end, he wasn’t much of a factor.

Ron Paul, as always, was consistent on both advancing his libertarian agenda and in helping Romney by attacking Santorum.

The real winner tonight was President Obama. After 20 debates, his potential rivals have done wonders for his re-election chances.

Additional reactions:

Thumbtack – The Daily Beast has video clips of the seven best moments.

Thumbtack – The four GOP contenders mentioned the word “jobs” only 10 times over the span of two hours.

Paul Begala:

“Santorum was clearly thrilled to be in the spotlight. But he spent way too much time splitting hairs and explaining the protocol and procedures of Washington in defense of earmarks and defending his support for Specter. As he has done in the past, he couldn’t resist picking a gratuitous fight with Ron Paul. That’s called punching down, and it rarely works. He played too much defense and too little offense. His job should have been to use every opportunity to define Romney as a feckless liberal and himself as a principled conservative. He didn’t accomplish that.”

What world does Mona Charen live in?

With the exception of his fixed, tight-lipped smile while others were speaking, I thought Romney was excellent. He scored major points on the Detroit bailouts, and kicked the teachers’ unions for good measure. His answer on Iran was first-rate. In all the euphoria about Newt’s debating skills a month ago, people forgot that Romney is actually a very good debater. He can easily best Obama in debate. Let’s hope he gets the chance.

Rod Dreher sighs:

So, Mitt says that if we vote for him, we’ll go to war with Iran before we allow it to have nuclear weapons. Santorum agrees. … For me, this election is shaping up to having to decide between protecting religious freedom, and going to war.

The Fix predicts this could be the last debate:

“First, this might be the final debate of the GOP presidential race — or at least, the last debate for a while. There are no other debates scheduled before the real Super Tuesday on March 6, and Romney’s campaign has not committed to a planned March 19 debate in Oregon. Indeed, Romney’s campaign looks as though be done with debates altogether, citing the overwhelming number of them in declining to attend a scheduled forum in Georgia next week. That debate fell apart, and without Romney, future debates would as well.”

Howard Kurtz:

“In the end, the debate did little to shake up the race, perhaps because the candidates–seated this time, close to one another–muted their criticism in what was the last such face-off before Super Tuesday. Even moderator John King, famously roughed up by Gingrich in their last encounter, emerged unscathed.”

Jed Lewison tears into Mitt:

Mitt Romney may have packed the audience tonight, but I still think he’s coming off as an arrogant dick. But I guess I’m biased. Santorum has been double teamed by Romney and Paul, and hasn’t always handled it well, but he has remained more composed, I think, than Romney. And he really schooled Romney over the Specter bullshit. That attack might have worked coming from Michele Bachmann … but not Mitt Romney.

Josh Marshall unpacks Romney’s auto bailout answer:

[Romney] opposes the auto bailout. But now he only opposes the money given before the bankruptcy phase. And what happened when they put the companies through a managed bankruptcy was what Mitt wanted all the time. So they actually figured out what to do from Mitt. Only that wasn’t good either because it was a sell out to the unions. In a Rube Goldberg kind of way it sort of makes sense. But having tried to pander in every possible way at the time and doing the same thing now, the whole thing just comes out as an incomprehensible jumble.

Ramesh Ponnuru believes that Santorum had a bad night:

He has spent way too long explaining himself on Arlen Specter and earmarks. No matter how good his answer is–and I’m inclined to agree with him about earmarks–time spent on these topics hurts him.

Andrew Sprung tires of Gingrich, Romney and Santorum’s bloodlust:

When the discussion turns to foreign policy, there is nothing these three won’t say to inspire the fear and hatred they think will push themselves past their rivals for the nomination and ultimately tear down Obama. Nothing.

Andrew Sullivan:

“Maybe I’ve lost my mind after all these debates, or maybe I secretly want him to win (because he would finally expose all the insanity that has been building in this party and needs venting). But I thought Santorum was on form tonight. My sense is that he will not lose his current momentum after tonight. I didn’t feel Newt tonight. Romney doesn’t wear well. Paul was great and funny and human.”

Ken Tucker marvels at Paul’s ability to mystify audiences:

As usual, Paul received the most mixed, often perplexed response from the audience. Aside from his supporters in the crowd, the rest of the Arizona spectators frequently didn’t know whether to applaud or remain silent when Paul went into his no-foreign-intervention position, and when it came to the birth control question, he confounded many conservatives in the crowd by saying that one should not blame contraceptives because “the pills can’t be blamed for the morality of society,” and equated the use of pills to the stock Second Amendment argument, “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” There was a flutter of claps followed by baffled silence.

Dave Weigel measures the exchange over Arlen Specter:

The late career success of Pat Toomey disguises the fact that he really might have lost a general election in 2004, when John Kerry was carrying Pennsylvania. Still, Santorum is right — the Specter mistake, as many hackles as it raises in the talk radio listener, says little to nothing about Santorum’s own health care politics. Compare Specter’s spending record to Santorum’s, and you’re going somewhere.

Will Wilkinson thinks the country lost:

The race has come down to Santorum and Romney, and they both failed to distinguish themselves tonight. Both repeatedly offered convoluted answers in the attempt to establish trivial points. As everyone’s noted, Romney’s success at hall-packing made him look like a winner even though he’s losing to Rick Freaking Santorum. … I am ashamed of and afraid for my country.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.