First of all, Santorum won. The media is saying this morning that Gingrich won it in the first five minutes, but he didn't. Santorum won, and I'll explain why shortly. But let's talk about Newt's first five minutes.
Yesterday, there was breaking news about Newt's second wife, who told ABC that Newt, in the midst of his affair with the woman who would later become his third wife, asked to have an "open marriage". So naturally, the CNN debate moderator, John King, asked Newt the question: Is it true?
Newt knew he was going to get the question. Everyone knew he was going to get the question. And he had response planned: "How DARE you ask that? This is a PRESIDENTIAL debate! The media is degrading and disgusting and I am disgusted at blah blah blah". That's a paraphrase, but it not only got loud applause, but it got a standing ovation.
Of course it did. Bashing and blaming the media is standard GOP fare. Newt's response was predictable, and it would have been the same no matter when he was asked the question during the debate. ("How DARE you ask me that question at the beginning of/in the middle of/at the end of this debate!!!")
Newt would like to pretend that personal failings have no place in politics, although he has run, and continues to run, on the sanctity of marriage and family values platform. In fact, back when this conversation took place between Newt and Wife No. 2, Newt was leading the charge against Clinton in the Lewinsky affair.
Of course, any thinking person watching the debate was probably asking where was Gingrich condemning the "despicable" media when news organizations obsessed over Anthony Weiner's personal life? How about Eliot Spitzer? Or John Edwards?
More to the point, when Gingrich was helping lead an impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton, and the media's obsession with a sex scandal was boundless, did Gingrich whine, "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country"? If he did, I missed it.
Still, it was a legitimate and expected question, and Newt feigned outrage. He complimented John King afterward and was perfectly cordial — yes, kids, the outrage at the question was all for show.
But Gingrich was far worse in other areas last night. He just couldn't help acting like a pompous pious blowhard. When all the candidates were asked "if you could undo ONE thing from this campain, what would it be", Newt's answser was basically, "At the beginning of the campaign, I shouldn't have listened to those advisors who were trying to get me to cover up my natural awesomeness."
He then closed with ridiculous hyperbole (but again, red meat for the masses): "Obama is the most dangerous thing ever". Apparently, more dangerous than Hitler and al Qaeda.
Santorum won the debate for three reasons:
(1) His ability to distinguish himself from Romney. This part was pretty easy — Romney clearly is no conservative.
(2) His ability to distinguish himself from Gingrich. Here, Santorum deftly pointed out that Gingrich's "grandiosity" is somewhat unstable, that Gingrich's self-assurance is the kind of thing that can get him (and the country) into trouble, that Gingrich is a bit of a loose cannon. It was a brilliant criticism, especially since we were all witnessing that in Gingrich right on stage.
(3) His "everyman" demeanor. The most telling part of the debate came when the group was discussing the release of tax returns. Gingrich's people released his tax returns as the debate started. Romney tried to joke and cajole about when his people would release his tax returns (nobody laughed), but said he didn't want to be exposed so early. And Santorum? He didn't talk about "his people" or "his accountants" or strategy… he simply said "I did my taxes myself. They're at home on my computer. When I get home, I'll get them off my computer and release them." It was a perfect answer which made him seem like a real person, rather than a guy suirrounded by accountants and strategists.
So, that was the debate. I was surprised by Santorum, but I don't know if his performance was enough to change anything. He's not going to beat Newt in South Carolina, but maybe he will draw more votes from Newt than I previously thought, which will allow Romney to win.
Time will tell.
Oh, and Ron Paul took part in the debate too.
Best musical performance last night though went to Obama:
FURTHER THOUGHTS: I should have mentioned what was (for me) the funniest line. It came from Mitt Romney….
"[W]e need to send to Washington someone who has not lived in Washington, but someone who's lived in the real streets of America…. We need to have someone outside Washington go to Washington." [emphasis added]
Seriously? Romney has lived in "the real streets"? Does any of his homes have streets?
Pictured: Romney's $10 million summer home in Wolfeboro NH