Perhaps it’s fitting that the last debate of the season — we all hope and pray — ended up in the hands of the one candidate who mastered the format during the entire cycle.  Newt Gingrich learned his lesson in Florida that his formula for debates was what worked, and that means staying positive, remaining “cheerful” rather than angry, and attacking only Barack Obama and the media.  That formula allowed Gingrich to mostly steer clear of the internecine arguments that cropped up between Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul, while speaking at length to the little in substance that actually came up at the depressingly repetitive debate.

That’s the trouble with holding 20 debates; they tend to look like repeats.  The only topic of actual substance for the 2012 cycle that got discussed at any length was Iran, and it was a replay of the 15 or so arguments between Ron Paul and everyone else.  Otherwise, the debate mainly focused on what everyone else has said about each other, and who voted for what in 1992 or 2001 or 2006. No one discussed Fast and Furious, no mention was made of Solyndra or LightSquared as examples of corruption in the current administration.  Bare mention was made of anyone’s economic plans.

Some of the review was rather fresh, though, since this was Rick Santorum’s first debate as a solid frontrunner.  Unfortunately Santorum seemed almost overprepared for the fight.  Instead of providing a brief response and refocusing attention on current issues like the economy, Santorum kept explaining, and explaining, and explaining, and added an apology or two along the way.  There is an axiom in politics: Explaining is not winning.  Save the explanations for your web page, not for debates.  Santorum came across as measured, honest, and open, but ended up sounding defensive almost all night long.

Mitt Romney didn’t do much better.  While he scored points against Santorum, he had to twist himself in knots to do it.  Santorum pointed out, for instance, that while Romney attacked him on earmarks as wasteful spending, Romney balanced his RomneyCare budget on the backs of federal taxpayers to the tune of $400 million, and that Romney certainly liked earmarks enough to ask Congress for a few during his Olympics rescue.  This led to the odd e-mail moment when I received simultaneously a message from Team Mitt blasting Santorum over earmarks and another praising Romney for his rescue of the Olympics, which was only possible through Congressional intervention Mitt was busily condemning at the moment I received it.  It fell to Gingrich, though, to concisely slap Romney by noting that his position seemed to be that Romney opposed earmarks he didn’t like but supported the earmarks that he himself got. Romney never got around to discussing his new tax plan in any detail (about which I’ll be writing later today), and ended up on the defensive himself a few times, especially on RomneyCare.  He seemed almost desperate to get into a fight with Santorum all night long, and desperation is as much a political aphrodisiac as explaining is.

Ron Paul joined in the attack on Santorum, which prompted Santorum to imply that Paul and Romney are colluding to some degree:

Rick Santorum suspects something is up between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.  Santorum had a tough night at the 20th, and likely last, Republican debate, held here at the Mesa Arts Center. He took a lot of attacks from Romney and a few from Paul, and he noticed that Paul and Romney didn’t seem to go after each other.  When it was all over, and Santorum met reporters, he didn’t try to hide what he was thinking.

“You have to ask Congressman Paul and Gov. Romney what they’ve got going together,” Santorum said.  “Their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.”

“They’ve got something going on?” a reporter asked Santorum.

“You tell me,” Santorum said.

Er … no.  Paul was simply Paul last night, attacking Santorum on all of the normal issues on which Paul would attack.  There are two facts to keep in mind.  First, Santorum got the brunt of the attacks because Santorum is the front runner.  He also ended up with the most air time last night for the same reason.  Second, it was Santorum who attacked Paul a lot in the earlier debates over Paul’s position on Iran, and who scored a lot of points on those attacks, showing Paul to be on the fringe when it comes to foreign policy.  Last night was Paul’s chance for some payback, and it doesn’t take collusion to explain what happened in the debate.

Does this debate move the needle for anyone?  I doubt it.  Gingrich had a very good debate but not a real gamechanger, and his position in the polling has dropped so low nearly everywhere that he’d practically need the other three men on stage to declare themselves Kennedy Democrats in order to get out of that hole.  Santorum may have rattled the confidence of some new supporters and give undecideds less reason to join his column, but it wasn’t a terrible performance such as Rick Perry’s debates in September and October, and Santorum did have some good moments as well.  Romney spent the night attacking his opponents (mainly Santorum but also Gingrich on a couple of occasions) rather than talking about himself, which is exactly the complaint that Republican voters have had about his entire campaign.  His line, “I don’t mean to be critical,” was a laugh line for all the wrong reasons, and it encapsulates Romney’s insincerity about his campaign style in six easy words.

All in all, this was a depressing and mostly useless debate.  Byron York sums it up well:

After all the recent controversy, who would have bet that the topic of contraception would not come up until well into the debate, that Santorum would answer it with restraint and grace, and that Romney would immediately adopt Santorum’s position as his own?  It wasn’t at all likely, but it happened.  And it was one of the best moments in a debate that had very few really good moments.

Let’s hope it’s the last of the debate moments, too.