Arizona Republican debate review: Trying to stop the Santorum surge

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Image Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For much of the time during Wednesday night’s CNN Republican debate, the candidates did their best to try and put the surging Rick Santorum on the defensive. Ron Paul called Santorum a “fake” when it comes to “being fiscally conservative,” and came down hard on Santorum having voted for the No Child Left Behind act. Mitt Romney provided a Santorum attack-sound-bite that sounded prepared in advance: “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’”

Newt Gingrich, as often as not, took the fight elsewhere — to President Obama. Again and again, he declined to criticize his fellow Republicans, opting to repeat variations on the “disaster” of the Obama presidency.

If there was any doubt about the hot-button issue of the moment, that was answered when the question “Which candidate believes in birth control?” was met with resounding boos. Yes, the audience seemed to be booing the concept of birth control. The candidates used the question to stake out their standard positions, with Gingrich again roping Obama into his answer, saying that the President has in the past “voted for infanticide.” Romney took a little side jaunt, trying to run over the President for his “attack on religious tolerance.”

As usual, Paul received the most mixed, often perplexed response from the audience. Aside from his supporters in the crowd, the rest of the Arizona spectators frequently didn’t know whether to applaud or remain silent when Paul went into his no-foreign-intervention position, and when it came to the birth control question, he confounded many conservatives in the crowd by saying that one should not blame contraceptives because “the pills can’t be blamed for the morality of society,” and equated the use of pills to the stock Second Amendment argument, “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” There was a flutter of claps followed by baffled silence.

This 20th debate, moderated by John King, was a mix of questions from audience members, internet offerings, and King himself. There were gimmicky moments, as when an internet questioner asked each candidate to define himself in one word: Paul chose “consistent”; Santorum: “courage”; Romney: “resolute”; Gingrich: “cheerful.”

The final question of the night — what’s the biggest misconception about you? — provided the only moment during which Romney flashed that sense of privilege he’s been working so hard to suppress. When Romney chose to respond instead with a spiel about his vision for America, moderator King tried to stop and bring him back to the “misconception” query. Romney shot back, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers I want.”

Well, no, Mitt — that ain’t the way it works. “Fair enough,” said King, probably more out of understandable confusion as well as politeness. But, no, it wasn’t “fair enough”: It was just an evasion, to one of the easiest questions of the night.

Late-breaking news: After the debate, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the host got a well-deserved big laugh during a segment on Republican attacks on a second-term President by showing a picture of Obama with the caption “PResident Evil 2.” Why, that would be enough to make all the opposing candidates characterize themselves as “cheerful.”

Twitter: @kentucker

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