I think Newt Gingrich did very well tonight. I think he knows it. He’s right. I’ve heard a number of people say that Rick Santorum had a really strong debate too and even that he ‘won’ the debate. Indeed, Santorum was basically more on his game than I think I’ve ever heard him. He had a really good debate. I think Newt did better. But here’s the key: Gingrich is in a position to capitalize in a big way on a strong debate performance. I don’t think Santorum is. So it all comes down to a very strong performance by Newt — one I think will likely clinch a win for him on Saturday night, notwithstanding the tell-all interview coming later tonight.
It all started (and in a sense ended) with Newt’s ferocious broadside against John King for raising the “open marriage” story. (Watch the video here.) The whole thing was a put-up job in reality. But for his intended audience, it was a masterstroke. And it was classic Newt. Take the mammoth offensive whether you have a leg to stand on or not and just go with it. It turned the whole thing into an outrage drama against the “mainstream media.” The cynicism of Newt’s tirade was on display post-debate when he complimented King for doing a great job moderating the debate. But again, doesn’t matter. He nailed it. That set the tone for the evening, virtually ensured that no one would touch the issue for the next two hours and instantly drew off all the Newt-marriage-tension hovering over the debate.
There was the one portion where Mitt really held the floor and that was on the tax return stuff. But it was not good at all. I found it genuinely curious that his campaign had not prepared him better for questions that were guaranteed to come up. Watch the video.
But the big thing is that Romney just seemed to shrink over the course of the debate. Like he was a bystander. At some points I almost forgot he was there. I’m curious what other people think. But he just seemed deflated and almost not there for most of the debate. It was Newt and Santorum. That would be fine if it was ten days ago when it really seemed that Romney was home free. But he needed a lot more than that tonight.
I have little doubt that Romney will still end up being the nominee. But I think it’s going to take him longer than we thought.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.