BY RICH GALEN
Reprinted from Mullings.com
If only these debates were important, or moved votes, or caused some changes in the race, I might not mind that they come about every 18 hours.
You know what happened in South Carolina: In five days, including two debates, the race turned upside down and what appeared to have been a easy, if surprising, win for Mitt Romney turned into a huge, if surprising win, for Newt Gingrich.
The moderator of this debate was NBC’s Brian Williams. I am prepared to institute a law that says no one may moderate a political debate whose name is not Brian Williams or Wolf Blitzer.
Unlike the audiences in South Carolina which sounded like they were watching a World Wrestling Federation steel-cage death match; the audience last night was mostly silent, allowing the candidates to answer the questions and not vie against each other for the best applause line.
Through the first ten minutes of the debate Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich said the other shouldn’t be allowed to run a hot dog stand, much less be President of the United States. At one point Newt almost launched into his standard attack on the moderator, but the danger of making America angry at their favourite news reader popped into his mind and he backed off.
At 9:12, moderator Brian Williams asked Rick Santorum how he can possibly win this thing. Santorum, was calm and reasoned, when asked about having lost his re-election bid for Senate by 18 percentage points he calmly explained that Republicans in Pennsylvania were pretty much wiped out but he didn’t fold on his principals and, effectively, lost with valour.
The conversation turned to Romney’s tax returns which he is to release tomorrow. When Brian Williams asked what would be in the conversation when the past two years became public, he said people would see he paid every dollar he was required to pay, but not one penny more.
Santorum turned the question about Bain Capital to asking, rhetorically, why Romney and Gingrich favoured a bailout of Wall Street which he called “destructive capitalism.”
Gingrich and Romney got into a “Lincoln-Douglas” type colloquy over Gingrich’s role at Freddy Mac. There was no shouting and no red-faced rhetoric, but there was plenty of tough language and it seemed to me that Newt was not as strong in defending his role as an “historian” for Freddy Mac – the real name of the organization is the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation – at $25,000 per month for a total of $1.6 million.
The conversation about housing, generally, was civil and reasoned. It was largely technical and there didn’t seem to be much difference in what the candidates thought ought to happen.
On Cuba – a big, big deal in south Florida – Romney, Gingrich and Santorum were hard-liners. Ron Paul said the cold war was over and talking to the government of Cuba was probably a good idea. Paul is not seriously contending in Florida so his modestly pro-Cuba stance is of no moment.
When NBC brought out the co-sponsors’ questioners, they got into good areas of interest to Floridians (Everglades, sugar subsidies, etc.) and the candidates appeared to be fully briefed and able to answer.
Then, one of the local questioners focused on the Terri Schiavo issue. I got the sense he had practiced that standing in front of the mirror in his bathroom for 20 minutes yesterday afternoon.
See, also, my Brian Williams/Wolf Blitzer rule.
The final 20 minutes of the debate were opportunities for each of the candidates to give their final statements again and again, which will be useful for their advertising people to pick the best 30 seconds to play over and over on Florida TV stations over the next week.
Here’s the candidate-by-candidate review:
Newt Gingrich: C+
This was not the feisty, combative Newt South Carolinians flocked to in huge numbers last week. I kind of liked it because that’s the Newt I enjoyed being around, but I’m not sure it helped him … momentum-wise.
Mitt Romney: A-
Romney came out swinging against Gingrich and continued to throw jabs throughout the debate. When the standard becomes “who looks more Presidential” Romney wins. Romney won.
Ron Paul: C
Paul was amusing seemed bemused. He appears to have settled into his role as the fourth guy on stage and is enjoying it.
Rick Santorum: B+
This might have been Santorum’s best overall performance. He didn’t seem desperate to get into the discussion. He seemed comfortable with the pace. He won’t win in Florida, but his personal stock is clearly rising.
Editor’s Note: Rich Galen is former communications director for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Dan Quayle. In 2003-2004, he did a six-month tour of duty in Iraq at the request of the White House engaging in public affairs with the Department of Defense. He also served as executive director of GOPAC and served in the private sector with Electronic Data Systems. Rich is a frequent lecturer and appears often as a political expert on ABC, CNN, Fox and other news outlets.