Debate Score: Romney on the Goal Line

With a lead in national and state polls and the South Carolina primary days away, Mitt Romney is on the proverbial goal line with a first down. Would he fumble and give his rivals another chance, or would he do enough to put some points on the board and extend his lead? How would he perform now that all of his rivals are focused on stopping his Iowa and New Hampshire momentum?

The 15th GOP presidential debate kicked off with a question to Newt Gingrich on his decision to go negative after a Romney allied super PAC hammered him in Iowa. Gingrich turned the question around to discussing Mitt Romney's record on job creation (47th in the nation at the time). The discussion that ensued found Gingrich accusing Romney’s Bain Capital of leaving companies with massive debt that led to their bankruptcy. Romney responded by highlighting his record in the private sector with Bain, and on helping save the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, before riffing on his record as governor. The open ended up a win for Romney, by contrasting his record in both the private and public sectors with Gingrich’s, which consists almost entirely of government work.

Rick Perry scored the first real points on Romney, by calling for Romney to release his tax records. Candidates have customarily released such records since the days of Nixon, but so far Romney has declined. Perry touted his Texas record as proof of his capitalist bona fides, 1,000,000 jobs created, before moving on to throttle Dodd-Frank for “strangling” the economy. Romney ended up having to defend more of his record, and then agree with Gov. Perry on excessive regulation. Romney could have ended the tax return debate with a dramatic flourish at this point, by releasing them on stage, but for whatever reason he declined and his tax returns remain unexamined by the voters. Perry’s campaign also sent out an email press release at the same moment, noting that Perry has released his tax returns going all the way back to 1987 while Romney, so far, has not.

A quarter of an hour in, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum sparred over negative ads, with Paul generating laughs by saying that his only regret with his anti-Santorum ad was that he could not say everything negative about Santorum’s record that he wanted to say in a minute. Paul hammered Santorum for his voting record of supporting No Child Left Behind and Sarbanes-Oxley, forcing Santorum to recant that vote. This was among Paul’s most effective moments in any debate, in succeeding to paint Santorum as something other than a stalwart, instinctive conservative.

Twenty minutes in, Santorum and Romney sparred over a super PAC ad that accused Santorum of supporting voting rights for felons. After much one-on-one squabbling on everything from said voting rights to the nature of the super PACs, Gov. Perry spoke up for nearly everyone watching by noting that the world was watching two insiders arguing over something that should be left to the states. Major applause and Romney agreed with Perry for the second time of the night.

After a break, question to Romney: You’ve changed your mind so many times on so many issues in the past, what’s to say you won’t do it again? Romney described his tenure as governor as “very pro-life” and noted longstanding opposition to gay marriage. He finished off the answer touting his belief in America and free enterprise and liberty, slamming President Obama’s desire to turn America into a European socialist model. Romney did well in answering the question he wanted to answer, and drew applause.

Juan Williams asked Perry about the federal government’s lawsuits against state immigration laws, attempting to frame the debate, on MLK day no less, as about race. Perry replied that Texas and South Carolina and other states are “at war” with the administration on a range of issues, from voter ID to right to work to freedom of religion. He finished with a line that could frame his path forward: “This administration is out of control.”

Gingrich was rough in the beginning but his intelligence broke through when Bret Baier asked him what the maximum length of time should be for anyone to receive unemployment benefits. The maximum is currently 99 weeks, which Gingrich noted is enough time to obtain an associate’s degree. He tied unemployment to job skills training. Like many Gingrich ideas, though, this one may be too cute: Many unemployed have fine skillsets, but jobs are scarce. And most who unwillingly enter the unemployed life have no expectation that they will still be on unemployment two years later. Connected to that, Romney followed up on a question about bailouts by noting that President Obama has opened up no new markets for American goods. That’s one possible reason that many Americans have found themselves on unemployment for so long.