OTHER OPINION: GOP’s Arizona debate failed to sizzle

By The Arizona Republic

We expected a lot of sizzle. We anticipated that things would really cook. And what did we get from the Arizona Republican presidential debate at the Mesa Arts Center? It was a dry heat.
Mitt Romney projected articulate managerial competence, as he so often does in these GOP faceoffs. The former Massachusetts governor did well enough in Wednesday night’s debate to be declared a victor on points. He wasn’t exciting, but he was relaxed and prepared. Especially on the financial issues that constitute his expertise, he did well.
Newt Gingrich steered away from the bombast and the vitriol, and instead projected the mile-high perspective on issues that so often causes listeners to stop, think and nod agreement. Gen. Gingrich gave way to Prof. Gingrich and the result was a performance good enough to very nearly tie Romney at the top.
It was in that role as Thoughtful Newt the former House Speaker delivered the most crowd-pleasing line of the evening, regarding the conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic church over mandatory birth-control and abortifacient health-care coverage:
“When you have government as the central provider of services, you inevitably move toward tyranny.”
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, meanwhile, answered the question, “What one word would best describe you?” more accurately than anyone else: consistent. In fact, the irascible physician is perhaps too consistent for his own good as a candidate.
Then there was … Rick Santorum. It just wasn’t his night.
Which may be bad news for the social conservative from Pennsylvania, because the Mesa debate constituted Santorum’s moment. It was his here-and-now. Alas, an overly defensive Santorum was on his toes only now and then.
After 19 Republican presidential debates, Wednesday evening’s iteration was the first time Santorum argued his points from the position of front-runner.
As is always the case with the leader, the questions were phrased to trip him. And, uncomfortably often, trip he did.
The same seemed true in discussions of Title X family planning funding and congressional earmarking. Santorum needed to appear presidential. Instead, he sought to explain. He seemed defensive.
The person hogging the spotlight during the immigration phase of the questioning, in fact, wasn’t even a candidate. No doubt with the Republican home crowd in mind, CNN reporter John King, the debate host, phrased the immigration question as a Sheriff Joe Arpaio issue … and the camera accommodated, lingering in the audience on the sober-faced, Maricopa County lightning rod on immigration.
That discussion centered on the importance of border fencing and the E-Verify system for checking the immigration status of potential employees. It seemed brief. The candidates spent more time arguing Michigan-centric issues like the auto-industry bail-outs than those important to the host state. Both states vote next Tuesday, the last actual primaries prior to the March 6 “Super Tuesday” elections.
As for the evening’s best question from the audience, kudos to the gentleman from Wickenburg who succinctly asked: “What do you do about the growing nuclear threat from Iran?”
It was more crisp and to the point than any of the responses.
The Arizona Republic