Ron Paul isn’t ever a model of eloquence, but the exchange between Paul, Bret Baier, and Newt Gingrich may have set a new record for incoherence in a presidential debate. Paul starts off badly in this colloquy by attempting to reverse a statement he made in Iowa about the illegality of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden as a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan, and by the time Gingrich gets involved, Paul has already wondered why we didn’t handle Osama the same way we did Saddam Hussein — who was captured after a full-scale military invasion that hardly worried about Iraq’s national sovereignty, in a war that Paul opposed then and opposes now.
Lucky for Newt that he got the follow-up, and he made the most of it (via Greg Hengler):
Gingrich won the debate last night thanks to this moment and the exchange with Juan Williams. No one should be surprised to see Gingrich’s mastery at the podium at this late stage; he’s put on a tour de force all through the primaries. He should get a small bump in polling, but Rick Santorum also had a fairly strong showing, taking on Mitt Romney more directly and more effectively than Gingrich did last night. Rick Perry also had another good-but-not-great performance, and he scored a couple of points, especially when he interjected on behalf of states’ rights in the question of former felon voting.
Unfortunately for all three, that plays into Mitt Romney’s hands at this stage of the debate. Romney also did well, at least well enough to deflect the attacks without making any mistakes. If only Gingrich had performed effectively, voters might have had a reason to consolidate behind Newt, and the same could be said for Santorum. By having everyone do well, their voters have no reason to migrate to a single alternative to Romney, which means that Romney will still face a fractured conservative field on Saturday — unless he stumbles badly this week, which would be the first time all campaign long he would have done so.
Here’s a question to ponder when considering who actually ended up benefiting most from this debate. Who talked the most about health care and entitlements? Surprisingly, it was Mitt Romney, whose competitors never bothered to attack him on the one program that most animates his opposition.