Photo: Courtesy of CNN
The four remaining Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Mesa, Ariz., last night for what could be the last throwdown in a very, very long series of primary debates. Wednesday’s matchup was actually a relatively uncomfortable and prolonged affair, marked by open hostility between the frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Maybe it was the awkward roundtable seating, or maybe the candidates are just over it at this point, but the tone of the evening was surprisingly petulant and bitter. By the end of the night, it was clear that everyone onstage was ready to call it a wrap on the debate.
The fireworks largely revolved around Romney and Santorum, who are battling for the lead in the Michigan and Arizona primaries next week. With a little help from Ron Paul, Romney tore into his latest rival relentlessly, reducing Santorum to an awkward, rambling mess.
At the ends of the table, Paul and Gingrich seemed content to just be themselves and let the frontrunners duke it out over Arlen Specter. Gingrich was even rocking a purple tie.
Overall, the debate did not shed a lot of new light of the state of the Republican race. But it did provide some excellent final moments to tide us over until Super Tuesday.
In what should have been an early warning sign for Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Senator started off the debate with a very awkward exchange over Paul's latest attack ad.
Asked why he was running an ad calling Santorum a 'fake conservative,' Paul didn't mince words: 'Because he's a fake!'
Santorum was taken aback, and then bizarrely responded by turning to his opponent and telling him: 'I'm real, Ron, I'm real. I'm real,' while awkwardly touching his arms.
Paul's response? 'Congratulations.'
Watch the clip below.
After spending most of the month out of the campaign spotlight, Gingrich returned to the debate stage reinvigorated and ready to resume his post as the resident ideas man.
Gone was the angry, bitter Newt from Florida and Nevada. Asked to describe himself in one word last word, Gingrich chose: 'Cheerful.'
Of course, he proceeded to explain that America is in 'total war,' cautioning the nation about the imminent threat of nuclear terror in major U.S. cities. He also explained that the Los Angeles Unified School District is waging war against children.
In short -- Newt's back.
Although the debate audience stopped short of cheering for death, the Arizona crowd was pretty rowdy last night. And they did not like it when CNN moderator John King asked about birth control.
Gingrich and Romney practically leaped out of their seats at the audacity of such a question, and proceeded to cast the contraception controversy as an issue of religious liberty, not social values. Gingrich also managed to throw in a good, right-wing jab at Obama and the media, pointing out that 'not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favour of legalizing infanticide.'*
But Santorum snapped up the culture war bait, likely relieved that the question wasn't about his thoughts on Satan.
Watch the clip below.
Santorum finally started to crack under the Romney-Paul onslaught in the the final quarter of the debate.
Forced to defend his votes on Title X funding, earmarks, and the debt ceiling -- as well as his unfortunate 2004 endorsement of GOP turncoat Arlen Specter -- Santorum broke the cardinal rule of politics and just started apologizing.
His explanation for supporting the No Child Left Behind basically handed his opponents' their next attack ads:
'I have to admit, I voted for that, it was against the principles I believed in, but you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sports, folks, and sometimes you've got to rally together and do something, and in this case I thought testing and finding out how bad the problem was wasn't a bad idea,' Santorum said.
Of course, Santorum is not wrong -- but it was definitely not the message he wanted to send during a Republican primary.
In the wake of Santorum's No Child Left Behind Meltdown, Gingrich and Paul both appeared to realise just how irrelevant the debate had become. By the time the education spending question got to them, the former speaker could hardly contain himself.
Asked what he thought of Gingrich's education spending policies, Paul replied: 'Newt's going in the right direction, but not far enough!'
At which point, Gingrich totally lost it. Apparently, Cheerful Newt gets the giggles.
Mitt Romney got a little cocky when it came time for closing statements.
Moderator John King asked the four debaters to share the biggest misconception about their candidacies. The other candidates responded succinctly, but the question apparently didn't interest Romney.
The former Massachusetts Governor launched into a sales pitch for his new tax plan, prompting King to interrupt and remind him that the question was about misconceptions.
Romney did not like that. 'You get to ask the questions you want, and I get to give the answers I want,' he fired back.
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