Desert Face-Off May Have Closed Out Debate Season. So What Did We Learn?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the crowd as he is introduced at the start of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz. i i

hide captionFormer Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the crowd as he is introduced at the start of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the crowd as he is introduced at the start of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the crowd as he is introduced at the start of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

Ten months and a score of debates ago, the Republican Party and a slew of news organizations brought forth on our TV screens a new definition of a presidential nominating process — conceived in targeted marketing and dedicated to the proposition that no number of debates was too many for hardcore conservatives.

As spring and summer turned to fall and winter, debate followed debate on cable TV. Many of us gave the last full measure of devotion by watching them all. Indeed, on the latest and possibly last installment on CNN this week from Mesa, Ariz., it sometimes seemed as if we were watching them all again.

A Recap Of The Mesa Debate

But as the smoke clears after the prolonged battle, the initial proposition seems to have been borne out. Ratings have been relatively high; two debates on traditional broadcast networks have each drawn more than 7 million viewers. In today's marketplace, those are highly attractive numbers for a cheap-to-produce public affairs program.

Moreover, the proliferation of cable TV debates has helped that sector dominate the mix of news sources on the primary campaign. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that a plurality of Americans (36 percent) depend on cable as their main source of campaign news.

Over the months, of course, there have been major casting changes. We saw Michele Bachmann step out of the race, then Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Suddenly, all three had all but disappeared. Newt Gingrich rose and fell in December, then ascended and descended again in January. Then Rick Santorum burst forth on one day in February when former front-runner Mitt Romney seemed to be resting on his laurels.

Unlike rivals who had gotten ahead earlier, Santorum seemed to have a certain staying power. His base among social conservatives was remarkably loyal, and the alternatives to Romney were dwindling.

This week, at last, in CNN's latest debate, we were down to the final four: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul, the 76-year-old contrarian and congressman from Texas who always entertains and brings along a few whooping and hollering supporters. And while none of them delivered a knockout blow to his rivals or himself, all managed to have their moments and bask in audience appreciation one more time.

But three of the four candidates have declined a CNN debate invitation for March 1, and a planned NBC debate on March 5 fell victim to the calendar that will have nearly a dozen states voting the next day. And no candidate has yet committed to the Oregon Public Broadcasting debate slated for March 19.

Lessons From Mesa

So if last night really was the end of the long season, what did it tell us?

Televised debates are always about expectations, and by this measure, the night belonged to Romney. Flashing once again the combative style he had in two debates last month in Florida, Romney took the fight to Santorum and made the former senator look like, well, a former senator.

Before the evening was over, Santorum had found himself defending his votes for No Child Left Behind (he did it as a "team player"), a higher debt ceiling and the congressional earmark system widely derided as pork-barrel spending. At times defensive, Santorum momentarily lost the support of the crowd and even showed flashes of apprehension in his facial expression.

He was, in the dread phrase, a Washington insider, trying to explain how Congress works its will through messy compromise and convoluted procedure. As soon as he started defending himself, he was beating himself.

Gingrich, meanwhile, sat slumped in a chair, off to one side, looking slightly becalmed. He more than anyone else has relied on the debates to make his case, through his references to "the food stamp president" and "the most dangerous president in history" and his zingers to the media for "protecting President Obama." Since his poor performances began to multiply in recent weeks, he has adopted a new emphasis on energy, promising gas for $2.50 a gallon and a far more tractable Middle East as a direct result.

He got in these shots as expected in the Mesa debate, just as Paul also found his chances to talk about bringing all U.S. troops home. Asked about the U.S. border with Mexico and all the thorny problems surrounding it, Paul said we could deal with them all if we could just stop worrying about Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

If Romney's goal in Mesa was to stay aggressive and calm and avoid his penchant for gaffes, he pretty much hit his mark. So in the end, after all these months and regular clashes among the candidates, the contest remains fairly close to where it began. Romney still seemed the Steady Eddie of the field, the candidate most equipped for the long haul and the showdown in the fall.

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