In grading candidates in debates, don’t let’s forget the rhetorical situation. It’s much easier to appear high-minded when no one is attacking you because you don’t count much, politically, for the moment. That would be Rick Santorum. He performed well enough last week, and he had a fine statement on the Declaration. But in the debate no one was pressuring him or making him respond. Blessed is he who can stand on the sidelines and put himself above the fray. I seem to remember a couple of weeks ago that Rick had some difficulty facing some of the criticisms of his activities since leaving the Senate. So I judge him, for the time being, on a different scale. His task was different, and his situation was different. A good performance, but too many commentators have been too generous.

As for Mitt, in his two races for the presidency the other candidates have had big problems with him, almost personal, for how he hit them unfairly in ads and mailings. They resented his behind the back approach. Except when he demolished poor Rick Perry way back when, putting his hand on his shoulder, Mitt never really showed his tough side in one and one combat. I hate to say it, but people like a candidate who can take a guy down directly when it counts. (Wasn’t that what Newt was promising to do Obama, and wasn’t that fantasy one of the main things that helped fuel his rise.) Men, especially, like a tough streak. And face it, the Thursday debate was pure decimation—and decimation of the candidate who had established himself as the best at debate. The picture counted as much as the words. Mitt simply looked bigger and tougher—and at the same time more reasonable—than Newt. Look for Mitt to pick up especially among men, where he was trailing.

Mitt’s mistakes come against the guys who don’t figure in for the moment. He bet Rick 1 ten thousand dollars when Rick didn’t matter, and he went after Rick 2 for displaying a quality we admire up, at least up to a point, viz. righteous indignation. I’m sure Mitt earned Rick’s personal enmity for that one. Because of all of his advantages—looks, money, smarts, etc.—others are rightfully wary of slights from Mitt, and he manages to deliver them. He has a difficult rhetorical problem of showing that he is tough without at the same time appearing to talk down to someone. Not just the other candidates, but the audience senses this fact as well. That’s a hard balancing act that Mitt hasn’t fully mastered.

Finally, Rick hit the home run, as Peter said, with his Declaration answer. But though it was less effective and less direct, do take a look at Mitt’s statement on the same theme, thirty seconds before. Not nearly as good, but on target. And I think it passes the Lawler test. Here it is:

“And of course, ours is a nation which is based upon Judeo- Christian values and ethics. Our law is based upon those values and ethics. And in some cases, our law doesn’t encompass — encompass all of the issues that we face around the world.
The conviction that the founders, when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, were writing a document that was not just temporary and not just for one small locale but really something which described the relationship between God and man — that’s something which I think a president would carry in his heart.
So when they said, for instance, that the creator had “endowed us with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” I would seek to assure that those principles and values remain in America and that we help share them with other people in the world, not by conquering them, but by helping them through our trade, through our various forms of soft power, to help bring people the joy and — and — and opportunity that exists in this great land.”

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