It was the last debate. Newt Gingrich won it.
He was the only candidate who repeatedly steered the questions toward Barack Obama. He was the only candidate who dared point out that the media barely touched Obama's infanticide support as an Illinois State Senator. He returned to the role of elder statesman.
The crowd leaned to Mitt Romney. It was probably inevitable. Mesa, AZ is the second largest concentration of Mormons in America and the State Republican Party handled getting the seats filled. It threw Rick Santorum off his game. The crowd booed Santorum taking on Romneycare's individual mandate.
Santorum did not shine. He came in, it seemed, prepared to be beaten up. He was off his game. In the second half of the debate he did better. But the beginning was stumbling, bumbling, angry, and in the weeds. One thing he did very, very well is steer the contraception issue to families.
If Santorum can consistently steer this issue back to stable families, he has an issue that will win over independent voters. Note to the Santorum campaign: you will actually win the debate even in the general election if you focus your social values critique on the integrity of the American nuclear family.
Romney out performed Santorum, but he had two flaws. First, Romney claimed to be a long time proponent of school choice, but he opposed school vouchers as Governor of Massachusetts and the Boston Hereald noted Romney refused to ever meet with the head of the Massachusetts Charter School Association while in the Governor's Mansion.
The big problem for Romney was his concluding moment in the debate. John King asked him what was the biggest misconception about him. It was a legitimate question and a chance for Romney to help himself. Instead, he got bossy and arrogant and told John King he wouldn't answer the question. That question of all questions was the one he chose to get arrogant about?!
Newt Gingrich won. He kept the focus on Obama. He sounded like the adult in the room. He was both diplomat and scholar.
I would caution the media on one thing — the Rick Perry Factor.
Back during the first debate, Rick Perry came under withering assault from Romney on social security as a ponzi scheme.
After the debate, the media consensus was that Rick Perry had been badly wounded, performed badly, and would be hurt by the social security issue.
His polling actually went up. Conservative voters actually embraced Perry doubling down on social security as a ponzi scheme. Conservative voters rejected Romney's attacks. The conventional wisdom was wrong.
I think the conventional wisdom is wrong about Santorum. While I think he did not perform as well as he should have and, in fact, hurt himself, on the social values issues I think Santorum helped himself more than the media would believe.