Political observers were nearly unanimous in their verdict on the Republican debate last night in Arizona: Former Senator Rick Santorum squandered an opportunity to cement his status as a Republican front runner and allowed the former front-runner Mitt Romney to gain ground at his expense.
The alternating front-runners in the Republican race traditionally draw fire from their rivals. What stood out at the debates was the unofficial collaboration between Romney and Ron Paul in lacing into Santorum.
Paul made no apologies for branding Santorum a fake in a campaign ad and repeated the charge in the debates. The strategy was to poke holes in the Santorum record as a senator, to show that he was not the fiscal conservative that he claimed to be.
Another line of attack was Santorum's support for former Senator Arlen Specter in a Republican primary against a much more conservative Pat Toomey (who was elected Senator in 2010). Spector went on to defect from the Republican Party to the Democrats after the Obama victory.
Rick Santorum gave a lengthy defense, stating that he backed Arlen Specter only after extracting a pledge that he would, as Judiciary Chairman, shepherd George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees through the Senate. This was an issue where Santorum was clearly on the defensive.
Given the fact that the debates are covered like horse races, with the emphasis being on how each candidate finished in the running, insufficient coverage was awarded to the substance. In fact, from my close reading of the transcript, I don't believe that Santorum did as badly in the debate as has been described by the media.
With the exception of Representative Ron Paul, the Republican field was strongly united on the issue of Iran. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich strongly disagreed with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who in a CNN interview on Sunday, characterized Iran as a rational actor.
General Dempsey went on to say that he thought Iran was a rational actor. I can't imagine why he would say that. And I just cannot imagine why he would have said it. The fact is, this is a dictator, Ahmadinejad, who has said he doesn't believe the Holocaust existed. This is a dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth. This is a dictator who said he wants to drive the United States out of the Middle East. I'm inclined to believe dictators. Now I -- I think that it's dangerous not to.
Gingrich also said that he would back an Israeli preemptive strike against the Iranian nuclear program:
-- if an Israeli prime minister, haunted by the history of the Holocaust, recognizing that three nuclear weapons is a holocaust in Israel, if an Israeli prime minister calls me and says, I believe in the defense of my country. This goes back to a point that Congressman Paul raised that we probably disagree on. I do believe there are moments when you preempt. If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons.
Mitt Romney was no less forceful when he was asked whether the spike in gasoline prices as a result of the Iranian crisis perturbs him.
Look, the -- the price of gasoline pales in comparison to the idea of Ahmadinejad with nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad having fissile material that he can give to Hezbollah and Hamas and that they can bring into Latin America and potentially bring across the border into the United States to let off dirty bombs here. I mean -- or -- or more sophisticated bombs here, this -- we simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weaponry.
Romney called Iran the worst failure of the Obama administration and criticize him for communicating constantly to Israel that it should not take military action. Instead of this the United States should be signaling Iran that it was considering military options. He concluded:
We must now allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. If they do, the world changes. America will be at risk. And some day, nuclear weaponry will be used. If I am president, that will not happen. If we reelect Barack Obama, it will happen.
Rick Santorum could only agree with Romney and Gingrich and pointed out that as a senator, he had allocated money to the opposition in Iran, but this program was cut when Obama came into office. He contrasted the administration's interventionism in Egypt and Libya to his timidity on Iran.
In the meantime, when the radicals in Egypt and the radicals in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood, when they rise against either a feckless leader or a friend of ours in Egypt, the president is more than happy to help them out.
When they're going up against a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel, that wants to dominate the radical Islamic world and take on the great Satan, the United States, we do nothing. That is a president that must go. And you want a leader who will take them on? I'll do that.