Mark Halperin, political correspondent for Time magazine, has another report card on the January 24 GOP candidates MSNBC debate in Boca Raton, FL.
Despite months of floundering, and his unofficial coronation as Most Unpopular by the media and his rivals, Romney is suddenly re-energized. Buoyed by his Michigan win, his delegate count, his promising poll numbers and a chaotic economy that boosts his CEO platform, Romney came out strong, unapologetic and on message. The man l-o-v-e-s to talk about the economy and it shows. Was less on edge—and less edgy—than in the last few debates, and settled comfortably into the 'looks and sounds like a president' zone that is one of his chief assets. Swiftly back-pedalled from a too-pointed barb about Bill Clinton, transforming his response into a crowd-pleasing poke at Hillary Clinton. Seemed to anticipate an eventual one-on-one contest with McCain, and displayed the confidence of a man who feels certain he has a spot in the finals. Bottom line: Benefited more than anyone else from the oddly low-key nature of a high-stakes forum.
Sober or grim? You make the call. Handled some early light jabs from questioners and rivals with ease, although he fumbled a bit when apparently denying his own quote about lacking economic expertise. Eagerly welcomed another opportunity to rhetorically run against Hillary Clinton on Iraq. To his great benefit, his elegant, vital, and sharp-tongued mother was more prominently referenced than either Clinton, and he charmingly parried a question about her televised comment that he had limited support from the Republican Party. Graciously offered unsolicited praise of Giuliani's 9/11 record. Overall, though, was too often tense and forced in his delivery, rather than presenting himself as the happy warrior with a frontrunner's breeze at his back.
As always, showed up without any strategy to win—on the night he most needed to win big. Offered shrewd, vigorous answers but without a schematic purpose that would define a rationale and theme for his candidacy. Nevertheless, he was a cool customer, with the same unflappable, calm delivery he has presented in every debate for nearly a year, regardless of polls, news-of-day, or media expectations. That persona was good when he was the national frontrunner, but on the eve of the most important election of his presidential career, it just wasn't good enough.
Low-key to the point of soporific. His patented one-liners did not seem to win over this audience as they had past debate audiences, although he kept on zipping and zinging whenever possible. Seemed to be playing out the string as a sidekick and quipster rather than a man who won Iowa three weeks ago.
Did not stand out as a rousing alternative to the establishment, unlike in past debates. Didn't pick fights, wasn't the target of attacks—and launched no dramatic speeches, passionate outrage, or singular ideas. As always, however, he struck a chord with the anti-war wing of the party whenever he mentioned Iraq.