Arizona debate: Who rose to the occasion (and who didn’t)?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

If we’ve learned anything this election cycle, it’s that debates matter. Clearly, Wednesday night’s GOP primary debate was not a good night for Rick Santorum. The question is now to see whether or not that shows up in the polls.

Prior to last night’s debate, I noted some of the things which I would be watching for. I thought it might be fun to revisit them now.

My post-debate responses are in italics.

1). Rick Santorum and social issues. What will he be asked … about contraception? — about abortion doctors” — about … Satan? And how will he respond? Good answers could turn Santorum’s cultural conservative positions into a huge positive; bad answers could do him in. Much is at stake. There will also be added pressure; this is, I believe, the first debate where Santorum should legitimately be considered a front runner.

Santorum was asked about social issues. Perhaps the most disappointing and shameless question of the night (though not directed specifically to Santorum) involved contraception. But it wasn’t Santorum’s stances on social issues that hurt him most — it was instead the impression that, as a U.S. senator, he was a “team player” who went along with all the Bush-era “big government” policies.

2). Mitt Romney’s performance after firing his debate coach. Don’t forget, Romney had lost a series of debates to Newt Gingrich prior to hiring Michele Bachmann’s ex-debate coach. He promptly won the next two debates, turning the tables on Gingrich, and slowing his post-South Carolina momentum. But Team Romney fired him after he received too much credit. This, of course, is a subplot, but an interesting one, nonetheless. If Romney stumbles, expect pundits to blame it on the petty firing of his debate coach.

I don’t think Romney has to worry about re-hiring the debate coach. He had a very strong night.

3. Will Ron Paul attack Rick Santorum? It’s been noticed that Ron Paul  has generally refrained from attacking Mitt Romney, instead, preferring to attack Romeny’s more conservative opponents. Earlier today, I wrote about speculation that Mitt Romney might offer Rand Paul the veep slot.  It will be interesting to see if the trend continues. My guess is Paul — once again — goes after Santorum and Newt, but we shall see.

I’ll have to go to the transcripts, but as memory recalls, Ron Paul was consistent … consistently out to help Mitt Romney.

4. Will Newt Gingrich have a good night? Gingrich tends to perform exceptionally well as the underdog. His performances as the front runner, however, weren’t as good. The pressure should be off tonight. Expect Gingrich to have a solid performance.

As predicted, Gingrich had a very good night.