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First Thoughts: About last night

About last night: Santorum got tripped up talking about Washington and Congress… Romney stayed on message -- so much so that he didn’t bother to answer some questions… Gingrich played referee and shined in some moments… And Paul, as expected, helped Romney by going after Santorum… Don’t miss all of last night’s indirect discussion of He Who Must Not Be Named: George W. Bush… Obama talks energy in Miami, FL at 2:25 pm ET, reminding us of perhaps his biggest legislative failure: cap-and-trade… Bob McDonnell’s retreat in VA… And John Lewis on Santorum and Obama. 

*** About last night: So what did we learn during the 20th (and maybe final) debate of the GOP presidential primary season? For starters, Rick Santorum didn't get tripped up on social issues. But instead, he got tripped up on talking too much about the inner workings of Congress. Earmarks, debt-ceiling votes, Arlen Specter. That’s exactly what Team Romney wants GOP primary voters to think about Santorum: that’s he’s a creature of Washington. Santorum was right on the facts of these issues, but those facts are unpopular, especially for a conservative audience. Romney, meanwhile, was aggressive and did everything he could to keep Santorum talking about Washington. What’s unclear: What did Romney do for himself? He didn’t spend much time talking about his new tax plan (which in hindsight is surprising), nor did he seem focused on the general election (as he had been in previous debates).

Joshua Lott / Reuters

Rick Santorum talked at length about the inner workings of Congress, stepping right into the Washington insider picture being painted by opponent Mitt Romney's campaign.


*** Is it possible to stay on message too much? In fact, Romney was so much on message at times that he didn't even bother answering some questions.   When moderator John King asked his final question of the night -- about the biggest misperception of each candidate -- Romney talked instead about the importance of restoring “America’s promise.” When King followed up to repeat his question, Romney replied, “You get to ask the questions you want; I get to give the answers I want.” But as NBC’s David Gregory pointed out on “TODAY” this morning, Romney missed an opportunity here to convince viewers that he’s a consistent conservative, or to let voters know something about his biography and family. And of all things to get snippy about with the media, it seemed odd to go after that innocuous question.

See related: Romney, Santorum clash in critical debate

*** Breaking down the other performances: As for Gingrich, he talked history and engaged in verbal hyperbole, but he wasn't the force he was in South Carolina or even leading up to Iowa. That said, he did play referee – noting that it was inconsistent for Romney to denounce Santorum’s earmarks but ask for his own when he was heading up the 2002 Olympics, and arguing that Romney wasn’t telling the truth when he said that Massachusetts didn’t require the morning-after pill for rape victims. Gingrich might not have another comeback in him, but he certainly did find moments to shine -- and any vote Gingrich re-acquires comes right out of Santorum’s hide, not Romney’s. And Ron Paul? Well, as expected, he directed most of his fire at Santorum and not anyone else. It only reinforces the perception that he’s become Robin to Romney’s Batman. The other factor in the debate worth noting was the heavily pro-Romney (and anti-Santorum) audience. It raised the question whether the debate might have been different if the audience makeup was different, or if the debate was held under more realistic circumstances where crowds were not encouraged to become part of a TV show… 

*** Indirectly criticizing He Who Must Not Be Named: And then there was the presence of the former president who must not be named in the GOP presidential contest: George W. Bush. While Bush wasn’t directly invoked during the debate, almost everything the candidates were arguing about last night (No Child Left Behind, the 2004 Specter-Toomey primary, the debt-ceiling votes, TARP, the 2001 airline bailout, the 2002 steel bailout, the “Bridge to Nowhere”, the 2001 earmark for the Olympic games) all took place during the Bush years. So, in that respect, the Republican presidential candidates ended up criticizing Bush as much as they criticized President Obama. And speaking Obama, his re-election team is ecstatic this morning about last night’s debate. Why? The conversation was about earmarks, contraception, hard line on immigration, and potentially pre-emptive war. They believe all of the topics the GOP debated last night put the party in a bad place with swing voters.

NBC's David Gregory and Chuck Todd discuss Wednesday's fiery GOP presidential debate and look ahead to Tuesday's primaries in Michigan and Arizona.

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Romney remains in Arizona… Santorum attends a Red, While & Blue Super PAC event in Dallas, TX…Gingrich attends three rallies, making stops in Kennewick, WA, Spokane, WA, and Coeur d'Alene, ID.

*** Obama talks energy (and reminds us of one of his administration’s biggest failures): In Florida at 2:25 pm ET today, Obama delivers remarks on energy and gas prices at the University of Miami. Per a White House official, the president “will highlight his administration’s strong record of developing new domestic energy sources, expanding oil and gas production, and reducing our reliance on foreign oil.” Yet the subject of today’s speech is a reminder that there’s no bigger issue where Obama failed to deliver legislatively than on energy. There are all sorts of reasons why the cap-and-trade bill never became law (the Senate Dems from coal-producing states, Climate-gate, Scott Brown’s election delaying health care, the environmental community’s lack of energy and mobilization), but it remains one of the administration’s biggest missed legislative opportunities. But it’s bigger than just cap-and-trade: The lack of a cohesive energy policy was criticized by all the candidates running in 2008. Yet here we are in 2012, still without a national energy policy…

*** Bob McDonnell’s retreat: And speaking of legislative failures, the retreat by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and other state Republicans on that “transvaginal” ultrasound bill was the worst of all worlds for the GOP in this VERY IMPORTANT battleground state. The good news for Republicans: It’s over; they’ve folded. The bad news: The retreat has disappointed their base, the original legislation fired up Democrats, and the whole matter took Republicans away from the one issue that won them success from 2009-2011: the economy.

*** John Lewis on Santorum and Obama: In his weekly “PRESS Pass” show, NBC’s Gregory interviewed Dem Rep. (and civil-rights icon) John Lewis, who talked about Rick Santorum (with whom he served in Congress) and President Obama. On Santorum: “It’s amazing to see Rick and the role that he’s playing. I’m not so sure he believes all the things that he’s saying… I just don’t think that is the man that I knew when he served in the House.” And on Obama: “Some of the things that you hear people saying about this president… This president has been called everything but a child of God. And as, and I’ve been around a while -- I have never, ever seen the type of hostility that exists in America; we didn’t have this type of hostility during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.” By the way, on “Meet the Press” this Sunday, Gregory will interview Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Countdown to Arizona and Michigan primaries: 5 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 12 days
Countdown to Election Day: 257 days

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