The GOP debate season resumed last night in Arizona after its longest hiatus yet. It's been almost a month since the four remaining contenders for the Republican nomination shared a stage together, and since that last meeting a lot has changed.
As any campaign staffer will tell you: a month is an eternity in electoral politics. One month ago Mitt Romney had just won Florida and was looking more and more like the inevitable nominee. Then came Rick Santorum's trifecta in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota. All of a sudden everything we knew was wrong. Again.
Republicans weren't talking about unemployment and the debt anymore, but rather contraception and religious freedom. These social issues propelled Culture Warrior Rick Santorum into a national lead -- a double-digit national lead in some polls. The Romney camp was once again playing catch-up with an opponent it was supposed to have dispatched before the year's first snow.
And so the stage was set for a debate in the Grand Canyon state that may end up being the last contest of this wild primary election cycle. Considering the amount of mud that's been slung over the last few months, political observers were expecting a dirty affair, and though the debate certainly had its churlish moments, politicos hoping for another blood bath had to have left disappointed.
These were my three most important take-aways from the night:
1. Rick Santorum can't stand the heat
For the first time, perhaps in his life, the socially conservative former Pennsylvania Senator took center stage as the undisputed front-runner. Senator Santorum had to expect that his elevated standing in the polls would draw increased scrutiny and more focused attacks, but boy did he look unprepared. Santorum sputtered trying to respond to attacks from Gingrich, Romney and even Ron Paul on everything from his penchant for procuring federal dollars for Pennsylvania through earmarks to his support for President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative. Santorum couldn't come up with any good defenses to these charges and at times came off as an out-of-touch beltway insider who has spent way too much time on Capital Hill. His response to an accusation from Ron Paul that he supported "Title X" funding for Planned Parenthood in a vast appropriations bill was especially feckless.
More damning even than his inability to deflect jabs from his opponents was Santorum's inability to land any of his own. He tried to go after Romney for requesting earmarks to fund the Salt Lake City Olympics, but the attack ultimately back-fired, inviting Romney's one, great zinger of the night: "I was fighting to save the Olympics, while you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere."
It was a bad night for Rick all around. Look for him to descend in national polls over the next few days and ultimately lose both Arizona and Michigan to Romney, the first by double-digits and the latter by a razor thin margin.
2. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich aren't going anywhere
Not that anyone really thought they would. Ron Paul has a strong base of support that includes youthful voters that have generally avoided the GOP (or electoral politics altogether). Newt Gingrich has a casino-owning sugar daddy that seems content to keep mainlining the former Speaker cold, hard cash straight up to the convention. Both second-tier candidates have taken full advantage of the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision.
Still, questions remained as to whether or not Gingrich and Paul would be able to continue making their cases without any significant primary or caucus wins under their belts. Gingrich has South Carolina and Paul came close in Maine - but you can't ride the wave off one state forever.
Both candidates dispelled any doubt about their intentions with strong performances at the Arizona debate. Ron Paul came out swinging, landing jabs on both Romney and Santorum. Gingrich did exactly the opposite, returning to the mellow demeanor he exhibited before the Iowa Caucuses. For the first time in weeks we saw the appealing, professorial persona that won Gingrich broad support ahead of South Carolina and Florida.
Neither of these candidates really has a fighting chance at the nomination, but at a contested convention they could both wield enough pledged delegates to be significant power brokers. Gingrich may ultimately leave the race after Super Tuesday if he doesn't score another W, but look for Paul to stick it out through May.
3. If Romney is ultimately the nominee, he's had to sacrifice a lot to get there
In the beginning, before Iowa, the Romney campaign was playing it safe. They hoped to ride the train of inevitability straight into the convention and emerge into the general election with giant coffers and an untarnished candidate. Such was not Mitt Romney's destiny.
The bruising primary process has left Mitt Romney damaged. He has had to spend endless millions attacking fellow Republicans, elevating his negatives and costing him significant ground in head-to-head polling matchups with President Obama. More ominous, perhaps, is the far right wing positions he's had to stake out on key, wedge issues. Those are going to cost him with independents in the general.
During this last debate, Mitt Romney staked out extremist positions on everything from immigration to income tax law. Hispanics and poor people may not matter in the GOP primary, but they sure do in the general election. If Romney ever does lock this thing up he will have a lot of backtracking to do. White men over fifty do not a president make.
Look for the eventual Republican nominee to dash towards the center after the Republican National Convention has concluded. Romney, viewed by many as a moderate, may be in the best position to accomplish this feat.
That is if it's not already too late.