Santorum's poor debate skills could tilt balance

Fri, Feb 24, 2012, 00:00

MITT ROMNEY knocked Rick Santorum down a few pegs in the Republicans’ 20th – and possibly last – debate on Wednesday night.

Mr Santorum is now Mr Romney’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, and his poor performance could tilt the balance in next Tuesday’s Michigan and Arizona primaries, which Mr Romney must win to reassert his position as Republican front runner.

Mr Romney attacked Mr Santorum’s voting record when he was a US senator, with the libertarian candidate Ron Paul providing comic relief. CNN moderator John King asked Dr Paul why one of his new television adverts labels Mr Santorum a fake. “Because he’s a fake,” Dr Paul replied to laughter and applause.

In a tedious dispute with Mr Santorum over earmarks – Congressional appropriations for local pet projects – Mr Romney said: “I was fighting to save the Olympics while you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere,” a boondoggle in Alaska that was funded but never constructed.

Mr Santorum said President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform was based on Mr Romney’s plan in Massachusetts. Mr Romney said “Obamacare” could not have passed if Mr Santorum had not supported Senator Arlen Specter, a centrist Republican who became a Democrat in 2009. “Don’t look at me; look in the mirror,” Mr Romney said.

Mr Santorum floundered in the minutiae of congressional procedure and missed what may have been his last opportunity to portray Mr Romney as an inconsistent conservative before a national audience.

When he was a senator, “I did say there were good earmarks and bad earmarks”, Mr Santorum admitted, adding a few minutes later that he would oppose earmarks as president. At the end of Mr Santorum’s perambulation, Mr Romney voiced the feelings of the audience when he said, “I didn’t follow all of that.”

Mr Santorum said repeatedly that he regretted having voted for the No Child Left Behind education programme. Dr Paul said Mr Santorum was a perfect example of what was wrong with Washington: a politician who posed as a fiscal conservative when campaigning, voted for appropriations in office, then offered to repeal the same legislation later.

The two-hour debate repeatedly descended into recriminations about who voted for what and who requested earmarks. Turning to Mr Romney, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said: “I think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got . I just think it’s kind of silly for you to then turn around and run an ad attacking somebody else for getting what you got and then claiming what you got wasn’t what they got because what you got was right and what they got was wrong.”

Mr Romney said he meant “strict” when he said recently that he was a “severely conservative” governor of Massachusetts. He had cut taxes 19 times, enforced illegal immigration laws, established English language immersion classes for immigrants, vetoed embryo farming and cloning and supported Catholics who wanted to reserve adoption for male-female couples.

With the exception of Dr Paul, the candidates hold virtually identical positions on all issues, which is why they spend so much time carping at each other.

Mr Santorum criticised Mr Obama for failing to support the Iranian opposition. But when “radicals in Egypt and Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood, when they rise against either a feckless leader or a friend of ours in Egypt, the president is more than happy to help them out,” he said. “When they’re going up against a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel, that wants to dominate the radical Islamic world and take on the great Satan, the United States, we do nothing.”

The debate drove home the lack of dynamism in a Republican party that is locked in a monologue with itself. “I’m disappointed that the big, bold, visionary stuff... is not on display,” Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary, told MSNBC.

Messrs Romney and Santorum were “two miscast candidates”, the conservative commentator George Will wrote in the Washington Post. Mr Romney did not understand the difference between politics and business, and his rationality was “unleavened by romance”.

Mr Santorum wanted theology to be the arbiter of politics and was “an angry prophet of a dystopian future”. Discussions about contraception, the role of women in the military and the place of God in one’s life gave the impression of a party stuck in the past. Mr Gingrich resurrected the accusation that Mr Obama “voted for infanticide” – a charge first levelled by the then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in the autumn of 2008. As an Illinois lawmaker in the early 2000s, Mr Obama had voted against “Born Alive” legislation which he saw as an attempt to ban abortion.

Asked to explain why he believes the president should talk about “the dangers of contraception”, Mr Santorum cited the fact that 40 per cent of children in the US are now born out of wedlock. Dr Paul, an obstetrician by training, said Mr Santorum had it backwards and that “the pills can’t be blamed for the immorality of our society”.

Disappointingly for many viewers, there was no talk of moon colonies (which Mr Gingrich proposed in Florida last month) nor of the work of Satan, who cropped up in Mr Santorum’s campaign this week when journalists publicised his 2008 assertion that “Satan has his sights on the US”. The remark was interpreted as a reference to Mr Obama.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Santorum asserted: “Our president refuses to call evil evil, refuses to even name it, refuses to confront it, tries to appease and cajole it in an effort to reduce America’s commitments around the world.”

Mr Romney also attacked Mr Obama, saying: “I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama – most recently requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth control, sterilisation and the morning-after pill. Unbelievable.”