The ABC News GOP Presidential Debate

A surprisingly large portion of Saturday night’s ABC News debate was directed by the moderators, George Stephanopolous and Diane Sawyer, toward the most urgent crisis facing America after three years of Obamanomics: whether or not states should ban condom usage.

They spent nearly half an hour on it, as the increasingly exasperated Republican candidates observed.  It was part of an effort to steer the debate away from areas damaging to President Obama, and into the badlands of purely academic discussion, where the Republican candidates could be made to look extreme and weird. 

Also, liberals love centralized power and hate the notion of “state’s rights,” so they like to concoct weird hypothetical cases to make discussion of the Tenth Amendment seem like the exclusive province of kooks.  As Romney noted the fifteenth time (or so it seemed) that Stephanopolous badgered him about whether states should be able to prohibit contraceptives, none of the states are really clamoring to prohibit contraceptives right now.

In a somewhat similar, but at least more topical, vein, there were some questions about gay marriage, which the GOP candidates all handled quite well.  Santorum, who favors a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman, pointed out that while many of the legal issues orbiting the marriage debate – such as adoption by gay couples – should be decided by the states, the definition of marriage itself should be addressed at the national level, because “we can’t have people married in one state and not another.”

Newt Gingrich, after making the point that marriage has tremendous foundational value to civilization and is “part of how we define ourselves,” went on to ask why no one asks about Catholic adoption services being closed down because they refuse to place children with gay couples – the flip side of the “tolerance” question, which only seems to work in one direction. “The bigotry question goes both ways,” Gingrich argued, “and there is a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is from the other side, but it’s not reported by the media.” 

This is the kind of unexpected, incisive argument that won him so much attention during previous debates.  He had another good one when he emphasized the importance of thwarting the spread of radical Islamism by making America energy independent, “so that no American president ever again bows to a Saudi king.”  Zing!

However, there wasn’t much sign of the much-ballyhooed Gingrich frontal assault on Romney, supposedly locked and loaded after the enraged former Speaker saw his Iowa numbers collapse under a barrage of negative ads from Romney and allied groups.  Maybe Gingrich knows he has little chance of cutting into Romney’s lead in New Hampshire, and is keeping his powder dry until South Carolina.

The most remarkable aspect of the debate was how little fire anyone directed at Mitt Romney, who seems to be coasting closer and closer to sewing up the nomination, while Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul beat the crap out of each other.  Romney took a bit of needling about his work with Bain Capital from Gingrich (obviously mindful that he was debating in a Northeastern state, because he made a point of quoting the New York Times) but parried it by talking about the large number of net jobs created through his business ventures, pointing out that the current President understands nothing about capitalism or the American entrepreneurial spirit, and emphasizing the importance of “having leaders who have held jobs in the private sector.” 

He also seemed a little irked when Gingrich and Santorum heckled his economic proposals as “timid,” but he had the good sense to respond by talking those proposals up, in an attempt to defeat the characterization instead of arguing with it.  I do wonder how Romney thinks his plan will “broaden the tax base” when its big investment and savings tax cuts are means-tested. 

Other than that, Romney didn’t take a lot of hits.  He got to sit back and watch Ron Paul, who appears to have accepted a position as his bodyguard, call Rick Santorum one of the most corrupt members of Congress, and assail Newt Gingrich as a “chickenhawk.”  Santorum punched back with criticism of Paul’s history with funding earmarks, while a visibly angry Gingrich spoke of his life as a “military brat,” insisted he never requested a draft deferment, and called Paul a liar.  “Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false,” Gingrich accused.

Rick Perry had a decent, if unspectacular, evening.  He made a little hay out of the squabbles between Paul, Santorum, and Gingrich, maintaining that they illustrated the need to nominate someone from outside the Beltway.  Texas, for example, is outside the Beltway.  He touted his record of job creation, quoted from his campaign platform adroitly, and really came alive when talking about his plan to create jobs by exploring the three hundred years of energy resources currently slumbering beneath federal lands.

The moment that set many tongues wagging, and led some observes to conclude Perry had committed campaign suicide, came when he said he wanted to send troops back into Iraq.  That’s not necessarily a fatal gaffe, because Perry did a decent job of explaining why: the urgency of preventing Iran from rolling in and taking away all that we’ve sacrificed so much to build.  Perhaps American voters are so allergic to Iraq that they’re recoil from the mere suggestion, but Perry did make some reasonable points.  Besides, his biggest problem is the failure to generate enough heat to get his campaign balloon back into the sky.  At this point, it can’t hurt to have people buzzing about something coherent he said at a debate.

Jon Huntsman dropped by to say farewell on his way out of the campaign, rehashing his most grating campaign themes – the “trust deficit” Americans hold toward their government, and the urgency of “nation building at home.”  He also belted out a stream of Chinese in the middle of a foreign policy discussion, sounding like a wacky parody of The Manchurian Candidate staged by the guy who did Borat.  I was hoping Newt Gingrich would reply in Klingon, but alas, he let me down.

Huntsman always had some good points to make during debates, and he ran a much more conservative campaign than his “crusading moderate here to save the GOP from those crazy Tea Party types” launch would have suggested… but the root of his problem, from that off-putting launch onward, was his knack for alienating the voters.  I watched him bust out some Chinese onstage during an address to CPAC-Florida, and it had the same lead-balloon-thumping-down-amid-crickets effect as on Saturday night.  The fact that he keeps doing it, when it never has any effect beyond visibly alienating the audience (and, in this case, making Mitt Romney laugh in disbelief) suggests either incredible arrogance or abject cluelessness.  Plus, as Romney observed by way of a coup de grace, Huntsman “spent the last few years helping Obama implement his policies, while the rest of us were trying to stop them.”

This left Romney to talk about “vision” and “the soul of America” while hammering Obama, who has brought us “inches away from no longer being a free economy,” and has “no experience in leadership.”  He seemed to spend more time than any of the other candidates talking about Obama, while they spent their time blasting each other.  His confidence when discussing punitive measures against Chinese currency manipulation, claiming that they had far more to lose from a trade war, contrasted well with Huntsman’s pleas to understand and respect the budding hyperpower. 

That left Rick Santorum to keep his momentum alive by showing he can handle some heat, and he did pretty well.  He demonstrated both mastery of his campaign platform, and enthusiasm for his economic ideas, making a populist bid for blue-collar voters and declaring Obama’s America “uncompetitive” due to “a stiff headwind called government.” 

He staked out his differences with Romney, emphasizing that he was “not ever for individual mandates or bank bailouts” as Romney was, and was also against cap-and-trade legislation.  Santorum took the most damage from Ron Paul hectoring him about being a “Big Government guy,” who voted for entitlement expansions like Medicare’s prescription drug benefits, but countered by insisting that he was now dedicated to a discussion of serious and immediate entitlement reform. 

He also showed that he’s learned how to throw a quick jab during a debate.  When Ron Paul applauded a U.S. aircraft carrier for rescuing Iranian fishermen recently, Santorum pointed out that under Paul’s foreign policy, the carrier wouldn’t have been there to conduct the rescue.

Santorum’s biggest problem is that, even in a greatly reduced Republican field – and with an astonishing Iowa performance drawing huge amounts of attention to his campaign – he still seems like an afterthought on the debate stage sometimes, the guy everyone kind of forgets is there.  He’s well-spoken and not prone to Rick Perry brain freezes or Herman Cain gaps of expertise, but he also doesn’t radiate Mitt Romney vision or dispense Newt Gingrich killer sound bites.  He’s likable, which is one reason Ron Paul’s attempt to paint him as a festering mound of corruption isn’t going to hurt him much… but his record contains votes that run strongly contrary to the Tea Party appetite for greatly reduced government, which is why calling him a “Big Government guy” will hurt him.  He doesn’t talk about spending cuts very often.

Romney should go on to collect his comfortable New Hampshire win next week, and nothing that happened tonight seems likely to change the dynamics in South Carolina, where some polls now have him in the lead.  The only way to keep Romney from trotting across the finish line is to make him stumble, and for a variety of reasons, the rest of the pack no longer appears interested in doing that.