These are the things that actually most surprised me at tonight’s debate (already vented my sarcasm via Twitter):
5. Newt Gingrich’s gleeful implication that Muslims should be treated the way suspected communists were. It’s not his first explicit appeal to religious bigotry, but honestly I was taken aback watching this one.
4. Seeing Mitt Romney pass up a softball question inviting him to say something nice about Sarah Palin. Would seem like an opportunity he’d want to grab, given how much less likely she seems now either to run or to be a frontrunner if she does get in. Why not pander to her admirers? Didn’t feel like it? Looking ahead to the general election?
3. Rick Santorum going to lengths to tout his desire to phase out ethanol subsidies (with goodies for Iowans over the next five years). Would not have expected him to highlight that position, given Iowa is the place he has the least bad chance at a not totally humiliating showing.
2. Pawlenty’s painful awkwardness when asked a question he must have known was coming: Will you say “Obamneycare” to Romney’s face? There’s a subtle dance here (remember the time Obama leaked to the Times he’d be getting tougher on Clinton at the debate, and then left it to Edwards to do it?), but I suspect in the eyes of most viewers he tripped himself up here.
1. The lack of anti-Romney messaging not just from Pawlenty, but from the rest of the field as well. Of course no one wants to come out of the gate looking like a jerk, but I’d at least have expected more rhetoric about a) how nothing is more important than social conservatism and/or b) how you can only beat Obama with a strong conservative message from a consistent conservative messenger. Romney kept getting in lines about how the most important issue is the economy, and I expected somebody – if not Pawlenty, then Bachmann – to contest that, explicitly or implicitly.
Given Romney’s advantages in the primary, for him to lose, a significant number of Republicans will need to be convinced that he’s unacceptable. I think there’s a very good chance that will happen, but it feels slightly smaller after this debate. Romney did a good job of using most of his answers to drive an implicit message about why he’s an acceptable standard bearer; rather than driving the opposite message, his opponents seemed more focused on standing out from each other.