Elections

Santorum earns poor marks for debate performance

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter

Rick Santorum earned poor marks for his debate performance Wednesday. The evening debate hosted by CNN was his first as the Republican presidential front-runner.

The former Pennsylvania senator needed a strong debate performance to hold onto his momentum heading into the next few contests — notably, the Michigan and Arizona primaries next Tuesday — but Santorum got bogged down under the attacks of his opponents.

He was forced to defend his 2004 support for then Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, saying that he did so because Specter had promised to support conservative nominees to the Supreme Court from his position on the Senate Judicial Committee. Specter remains unpopular for having switched to the Democratic Party in 2008.

In another unspectacular moment, Santorum admitted to having made a mistake by voting for No Child Left Behind, but explained that as a member of Congress, he had had to “take one for the team.” The comment played right into the Romney campaign’s continued efforts to paint Santorum as a Washington insider.

Santorum also ended up on his heels defending his use of earmarks while in Congress, again playing into an oft-used attack on him by the Romney campaign.

Commentators gave Santorum poor marks.

“Gingrich looked better than Santorum, which is bad for Santorum. This was the first opportunity to evaluate Santorum as the new potential president and he didn’t look presidential,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center. “Not fatal but a huge missed opportunity. He could have taken off. Instead he slipped back. On the other hand the debate didn’t change any dynamic and the status quo is better for Santorum than Romney.”

“Santo got bogged down-missed a chance 2break through,” tweeted Ari Flesicher, former White House Press Secretary and CNN commentator. (RELATED: Full coverage of the Santorum campaign)

“Lately this has been a game of inches. Mitt delivered strong performance and just inched ahead. Santo struggled,” tweeted Republican strategist Phil Musser.

“Santo needed strong night to pull ahead in AZ and push back on Mitt’s negs ads in MI. Didn’t get it. To ouch [sic] process. Flat,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy tweeted.

Santorum’s major challenge heading into the debate was to prove not only that he is appealing to the Republican base in a primary, but that he was also electable in a general election. But he failed to make the case: on the futures trading website Intrade, his odds of becoming the Republican nominee plummeted from the start of the debate to the end.

At the time of publication, shares in that outcome were selling at 56 cents a piece, an 80 cent drop over the course of the day. In fairness, betters had not expressed much confidence to begin with; at the start of the debate, he had a 11 percent chance.

By contrast, Intrade gives Romney a 70.4 percent chance of becoming the nominee.

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