The field has been pared down to five!
It's almost as disarming as imagining Downton Abbey with just five characters (btw, by the end of this season, I'm betting that every person in the world who ever lived in 1917 will show up as a character on the show).
But you know what -- sometimes it's good to have just a few characters (I'm thinking of Waiting for Godot), and that's what this debate was like -- Waiting for Godot by Jerry Bruckenheimer at a South Carolina theatre. And it was really, really good.
Here's the card.
Mitt Romney: C+
Why do all things New England have to do so uninspiringly well?
Mitt Romney, the Patriots, Ivy League grads.
You know what -- I wrote those lines before I actually watched the debate, and included them because a) I think they're funny and b) they show just how wrong expectations were for this debate.
Everyone thought Mitt would come in and sew up the debate and nomination like some hipster who likes sewing now because it's hip (but used to think it was lame, time-consuming, and 1800's in a non-cool way).
But Romney was hit hard in the debate when he seemed ready to coast, and he should've known that with fewer candidates, there'd be more time for deeper attacks.
A. He was knocked heavily off-guard in the first twenty minutes of the debate. Santorum nearly drove him into a Hillary-Driver's license moment with his sharp question about voting rights for convicted felons.
You could see Mitt actively searching for an answer that was a) consistent with his past position and b) consistent with his current beliefs. For Romney, that's always a challenge. Santorum had him completely on the ropes, and then bailed Mitt out, thanks to Rick's own arrogance.
Santorum pivoted to a discussion of what he personally favored, and it gave Romney time to recover and say something that wasn't great, but wasn't Hillary-Driver's License 2008.
And as has happened so often with Santorum, his quest for more self-promotion caused him to miss a big opportunity (another such example -- the whole Trying To Win New Hampshire thing).
B. Romney defended the Bain Thing in the opening moments, and while he wasn't terribly eloquent, the whole issue is favorable for him in a GOP primary.
And actually, I think it'll be fine and, possibly, even help him in the general. Here's why -- in extremely crude fashion.
Romney will automatically win the populist conservatives who are mad at TARP, and they're in red states anyway. The other heavily anti-establishment group, Occupy, will either be lined up to vote for Obama in blue states or cutting ads for The North Face. Either way, they won't be an issue in swing states.
The key demo in this election is middle-upper income suburbanites who actually want to and admire making money. They're uncomfortable with unfettered capitalism, but they know three things: 1 -- the economy sucks. 2 -- fettered capitalism has been pretty successful for them in the past and 3 -- Democrats constantly try to bludgeon Republicans with the rich-guy thing, but it has the suspicious odor of class warfare and envy.
Bain is complex.
Maybe not for you, but for me and for much of America, it is.
All that most of us know is that Romney made a lot of money for himself and investors, and often helped get rid of the bloat -- both to good and bad effect for jobs. But here's the thing -- that's essentially what this key demo wants the government to do. They're realistic enough to know that there will be losers in the economy, but idealistic enough to think they can get rich if they simply work hard.
The media is going to paint this as a big issue going forward, and it will probably become a big issue because it's simply promoted as one. But when all is said and done, my money is on the whole thing being a net positive for Romney (or a "net-net" positive, if you'd prefer.
C. His Super PAC stuff was, simply put, awful.
He continues to defend it by saying that the Super PACs are "completely out of control of the candidates", and that therefore, he has no sway with them.
Here's a graphic that says all you need to know about the veracity of that claim.
Even more disturbingly disingenuous is when Romney said of the Super PAC phenomenon -- "I hope it ends" and "we would all like Super PACs to end."
Yes, we all believe that he wants the entity that brought down his chief rival to go extinct.
It's like Megadeth claiming that they wished Benjamin Franklin hadn't discovered electricity.
D. Misplaced strength.
Why is it that Romney only sounds strong and forceful on things that are politically safe and obvious?
He had some nice moments on foreign policy, but as I've said before, ever since Rudy's 2008 slam of Ron Paul over 9/11, these debates have sort of been contests over who can act disgusted as possible over Paul's foreign policy.
That being said, he did mention that he wouldn't negotiate with the Taliban. The comment didn't get too much attention tonight, but it could get play going forward.
Another tough moment for him. His timeframe of an April dump might be smart politics, but it played badly on stage.
He seemed calculated (exactly the worst narrative about him), really rich (another narrative), and a bit arrogant (another).
I doubt it will move too many voters in the primary, and April is probably smart timing, but on this night in January, it didn't do him any favors.
Overall, it was one of Romney's worst performances.
Rick Perry: C
Over the past, few debates, the pro-Perry forces on Twitter have tried spinning his gaffe-less debates into a revitalization that Ponds could only dream of.
This was the Perry we were all waiting for, they've claimed -- the guy without the bad back, the bad advisers, and the bad launch.
Only problem is that he seems no more certain of policy, disappeared for large portions of the debate, and once again, seemed to think that the louder he talked, the better he got.
In fact, he's exactly the opposite of the iconic cowboy, who chooses his words carefully and calmly.
Instead, Perry often seems a World War 1 Gatling gun that sprays rapid fire indiscriminately, and sometimes finds a hit, but is usually just a loud woodpecker in the World War 1 night.
The problem for him (besides all his other problems) is that the perception of him as slow (mentally) yet wild (rhetorically) and unelectable (substantiated, so far) has crystallized (deeply). And Republicans want a winner.
He tried some cultural war stuff in the debate, but he already did millions of dollars of that in Iowa and in an even friendlier political climate, and he still didn't move the needle.
That being said, Perry did have a fairly sharp moment in the beginning when he jabbed Romney over tax returns (ironically, it was after Perry had to defend his Bain attacks by saying he was "all about capitalism." Anytime you have to defend your capitalism cred in a debate, you're in trouble).
Soon after he brought up the tax returns at the very beginning of the debate, his campaign released a statement, "Perry's Tax Transparency vs. Romney's Refusal to Release", which was awfully detailed and obviously showed that the campaign was very intentionally going after Mitt on the tax returns coming into the spar.
One more thing -- the Timothy Geithner joke about taxes was relevant for about four months in 2009, which doesn't make it much different from Green Day's "21 Guns."
Ron Paul: D
The good: He always owns his negative attacks, which is refreshing. After being grilled about his ads on Santorum, he complained in that shaky, quirky, avuncular and smiling voice that he only regretted not being able to "say all the things I wanted to say in one minute."
But he struggled even more than usual on foreign policy, and when it was noted that he'd be running to the Left of Obama on those issues, he didn't have anything beyond an "This Whole Idea" to counter with.
Let me explain his "This Whole Idea."
When Paul is at his best and at his worst, it is always preceded by him saying "This Whole Idea." The "whole idea" is some conventional wisdom or political orthodoxy that he promptly attacks after saying "this whole idea."
Unfortunately for Paul, he was left attacking "whole ideas" that were sensible to about 99% of voters. Like, for example, shooting Osama bin Laden.
Speaking of which, there was a particularly notable exchange when Gingrich said that bin Laden was not a "Chinese dissident." The only possible person who could be involved in that conversation was Ron Paul, and that's exactly why he struggled so much.
You simply can't win or come anywhere close to winning a debate when that's on the table. And for Paul, stuff like that was served pretty often on Monday night.
Rick Santorum: B-
As I wrote earlier in the post, he really had Mitt on the ropes over the Convicted-Felon-Voting thing, but pivoted into a self-promotional riff that allowed Romney to come up with an answer.
But it was a very effective spar and clearly threw Romney off his game, and the blood attracted other sharks.
That being said, he needs to beat Newt in South Carolina to emerge as the anti-Romney, and Gingrich absolutely killed Santorum in this debate. It wasn't even close.
Plus, how could Rick let Ron Paul beat him to using the word "Vatican" first in a debate?!
Finally, as always, Santorum is dealing with a gravitas problem. I looked up "gravitas" in Webster's Dictionary and this is what it said: "Not Rick Santorum."
Newt Gingrich: A+
If you measure debate performances by audience reaction, he gets an A+. If you measure it by cogent, strong messaging, he gets an A+. If you measure it by bumps in the polls, he might get an A+.
It probably won't be enough to overcome Romney's lead, but it will get conservatives thinking and talking again, and Newt hasn't provoked that kind of excitement in the GOP race in a few months.
He'll get panned in the media for simplistic responses to questions, but then again, Democrats pander every bit as much and with equally broad strokes.
That's just debating in this day and age, and Twitter is not going to move in the direction of Dickens anytime soon. This is our culture, this is our age (and I, frankly, love it).
He had quite a few strong lines, but most of them were about self-determination and a philosophy that rocks Republicans' boats (less Titanic; more Carnival Cruises).
He had some notable spars with Juan Williams, and judging from the audience's reaction, I think it's pretty safe to say that Williams will not be winning the primary in South Carolina.
One more comment I had to make that weaves a couple things from the debate -- Newt said "No Child Left Behind" has been a failure. Yeah, but what happens if you leave children in bathrooms with a mop, scrubs, paycheck, and timecards?
Moderators = A
Good job, but this is part of the irony of every debate that Huckabee doesn't host -- The moderators try to get candidates to attack each other; then ask why they attack each other so much.
(Seib and Kelly Evans, by the way, had more austere miens than Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick at a screening for a Jane Austen film).