The candidates, who have been slugging it out everywhere but Arizona in the past few weeks were asked to come to Mesa, AZ to debate each other for the 20 millionth time since summer of 2011.
After a clean sweep in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri early on in February, Rick Santorum surged into huge leads in Michigan and severely closed the gap on Romney in Arizona. Several gaffes, and exposure of "controversial" opinions later, Santorum's lead has dwindled in Michigan and Romney's Arizona lead has been extended.
It started off and remained mostly cordial among the four candidates. Sure, Romney and Santorum traded several jabs as the night went on, but it was the substance of their answers that separated them in my eyes, and in the eyes of most of the conservative political class (on twitter, at least).
Romney's "new" debate coach really is having an impact. Romney breathlessly shields attacks and is pointed in his counter-attacks. Sure, he's got some of the same weaknesses he's always had-largely on substance, but the need for a great debate no. 2 in Florida was fulfilled, thanks to the new coach and some of the same qualities came out again tonight. Instead of just smiling in frustration, Romney is not afraid to define himself in light of his opponents attacks.
Santorum could use some help in the debates. This was the first debate he's had to manage as the psuedo front-runner, and the definite leader of the not-Romney duo. He just didn't fair so well. He was visibly upset by Ron Paul's attacks (largely because they've been sparring since the first debate, in my opinion) and when Romney made salient attacks on his record, Santorum was visibly searching for an answer.
Where Santorum struggled tonight was largely on substance not aesthetics. With both Romney and Paul holding his feet to the fire w/his Senate voting record, Santorum failed in the attempt to marry his voting record overall with the conservatism he supposedly represents. Many times he stumbled advocating for an agenda that would seek remedy to big government by instituting...more government and the crowd, while obviously pro-Romney didn't like in general.
Newt Gingrich was as cool as a cucumber. His body language at least initially, was indicative of someone who's being asked questions in the friendly environment of a conservative think tank, not a debate on a liberal news network. His body language changed after the first commercial break, and it seemed as though he relished in not being the front runner, taking a "nothing to lose" type of approach. Most of his answers were solid and based in his deep understanding of history. Nothing he said was commanding and I don't think he did a good enough job convincing voters who've strayed from him to Santorum to come back to him.
Ron Paul had his best debate of the entire debate schedule. Since only a small fraction of the debate focused on foreign policy he was able to flex his muscles where they are most impressive-governmental power and spending at the federal level. His reiteration of the importance of the 10th Amendment and its role in governing at the federal level illustrated the importance of a libertarian foundation for the GOP going forward.
If I had to grade the debate out, I'd give a B+ to both Romney and Paul, a B to Newt and a C to Rick Santorum. I think it's unfair at this point in the race to say that anyone can "win" one of these debates, especially given the fact that we're nearly into March. If I had a gun to my head, I'd say Romney won simply because Santorum did not have a good night and he obviously stands to benefit from that the most. Newt was OK, and Ron Paul was a good but distant second.