I'm biased, but I think the real winner last night was CNN and I feel confident I'd say that even if they didn't send me a paycheck. After that disastrous and embarrassing NBC debate, Wolf Blitzer held his own, did not get devoured by Newt Gingrich, and engaged in a lot of substance without a lot of random questions like . . . oh . . . say . . . should states ban birth control.
Let me tell you first who lost the debate because it was in a moment with Wolf Blitzer. There was a moment he asked Newt Gingrich about Romney's tax returns and Newt tried to say the question was inconsequential. He tied his napkin around his neck, pulled up his fork and knife, and was just about to sink his teeth into Wolf when Wolf pushed again. The crowd heckled Blitzer. Gingrich drooled over the moderator he was about to consume. "Wanna try again," he asked mischievously. Wolf Blitzer, instead of hopping on Newt's plate pushed once more, pointing out Gingrich had, just this week, attacked Romney on these things. The crowd reacted a bit and Gingrich suddenly tried to get everyone on stage to call a truce. Romney had none of it, instead calling on Gingrich to, in effect, man up and say to Mitt's face the things he says elsewhere.
The crowd turned on Newt. They laughed. They jeered. Blitzer, saved from the jowls of moderator eater, went straight in to a tax question based on Romney's taxes and Newt's tax plan with Newt still on defense from the prior question. The moderator ate Newt. Live by the debate, die by the debate, and Newt Gingrich died in some clever rhetoric, losing the crowd both in that instance and on Mitt Romney's stock ownership.
Mitt Romney won the debate. He and Gingrich behaved like petulant children, but Romney got under Newt's skin in a way Newt did not get under Romney's skin and Newt came off looking the lesser of the two. Additionally, Mitt Romney finally offered up a bold and clear answer on his wealth with a strong defense of capitalism and self-made men. There was no apology and no defense. It was precisely what he needed to do.
Though he may have won, Rick Santorum had the best night of any candidate and though Romney won on points, Santorum won on style and substance. He offered up the strongest attack yet on Romneycare, pointing out how if Romney is the nominee we cede an important line of attack on Obamacare. He rattled Romney in a way Newt did not. He acted like the adult in the room. He got himself some supporters from Newt Gingrich I'm pretty sure.
Then there was Ron Paul. Many of us quickly dismiss Ron Paul, but his performance was stellar. He offered extremely sound responses on healthcare, education, border security, and more. Very few of the questions were on foreign policy, which is where he tends to go off the reservation. Last night he came off as warm, funny, and right on the mark. It was his best debate performance. Santorum and Paul benefited from Romney and Gingrich's constant bickering.
But Romney did what he had to do. He stopped any swing back from Gingrich. His performance more likely than not helped him secure Florida unless Gingrich can pour in money and manpower in the next 24 hours.