Last night the Republicans had their 15th debate in South Carolina. The debate was hosted by the Fox News Channel and The Wall Street Journal.
This is the last debate, I think, before the South Carolina primary on Saturday. And, I have to say, this was probably the best debate I’ve seen.
Over at the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol agreed with me.
However, to be fair, Charles Blow at the New York Times found much to be disgusted about with Gingrich’s tirade.
As far as the front-runner, Mitt Romney seemed to have a rough night. Hugh Hewitt still carried the water for his man, but Charlotte Hays at National Review pretty much summed up Romney’s most annoying characteristic of last night:
Romney has time to prepare to debate Barack Obama. The general-election viewers won’t want as much fire as the South Carolina Republicans. That will be to his advantage. But he does need to get used to being under attack. He also needs to drop the smile. Nothing wrong in looking serious in serious times (emphasis mine, B.E).
Romney does have a tendency to sit smile when he’s in the hot seat. My wife pointed this out when Bachman would rail against him. He’d just stand back and smirk.
The most sailent fact from last night is that the debate hasn’t changed the big picture. Jennifer Ruben, at the Washington Post, sums this up nicely:
Romney has done a respectable job defusing three potential weaknesses. First, the flip-flop dig no longer seems all that potent. He’s pretty much mastered the telling of his conversion to a pro-life position and insisting that he is against discrimination but also against gay marriage. Second, he has been aided greatly by the media in debunking the Bain attacks. Coming from sources outside the campaign, the fact-checking has, to a large degree, confirmed his success and also damaged his opponents’ credibility. Finally, when Santorum accused Romney of being too timid in the debate on entitlements, it didn’t quite ring true, given Romney’s position on Medicare reform (a modification of Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan that later became the Ryan-Wyden plan) and his forthrightness on Social Security. Is Santorum heading into Florida with the position that you have to maintain benefits for current retirees?
Romney is winning and, step-by-step, moving toward the nomination both because his opponents have been ineffective (and self-defeating) and because, for all the eye-rolling in the media and the distaste for him among right-wing pundits, he has developed a solid conservative agenda. With those positions, adept speaking skills and very flawed opponents, he will win the nomination unless one of his competitors starts drilling down on Romney’s weaknesses
I’m pretty much with Ruben. Nothing happened last night that Romney can’t overcome. He’s still going to win the nomination.
So, on that note, here are some of my thoughts about the others from the debate:
Gingrich: It’s superfluous to say that he did a great job. Gingrich soars at these events. Too bad the best debater doesn’t end up as President. Last night doesn’t change the fact that he’s been running a weak campaign.
Santroum: He needed a boost last night after his disappointing finish last week in New Hampshire, and I don’t think he closed the deal. In the end, Santorum is a passionate guy who speaks about a lot of issues I’m concerned about, but he just doesn’t have the charisma.
Perry: I was fairly impressed with him last night. It was his best debate performance of the season. I only wish he’d come out like that six months ago. I don’t think last night debate is going to change his poll numbers; in the end, he’s just going to drag support away from Gingrich and Santorum.
Paul: Well, as I said in my other post, The GOP and the Paulites are not going be making peace any time soon. It’s not that Paul gives the other Republicans much to like. He had a solid debate performance, but he didn’t change any minds.
With four days until the primary, Real Clear Politics has Romney averaging a 10 point lead over the rest of the field.