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Which of the GOP Six Would Do Best In Three 90 Minute Debates With Obama? Who Would Wage The Best Campaign? Who Has The Greatest Vulnerabilities To Attack?

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Saturday night’s debate provided a lot of answers to these three questions.

There’s been a lot of focus on who could best debate Obama, with the Romney and Gingrich camps both making their arguments. Last night should have reminded GOP voters that debates always have a third participant, the media that structures the questions and cues the video. The unbelievable set-up and attack on Gingrich via the fidelity question –which he and his colleagues handled well and graciously– is a foreshadowing of what will come in the fall no matter who is the nominee.

Allowing media players to dress their hits in “third-party-from-the-audience” questions is a game that should be ruled out from the start, but won’t be as the presidential debate commission has already recommended another asinine “townhall” format, and no doubt the “viewers on Facebook and Twitter want to know if you’ve stopped evicting poor families” will mark the fall series of debates. (If they happen at all. The president’s shattered standing and increasingly fractured public utterances suggest he may replay Nixon’s ’72 strategy and simply refuse to meet his GOP opponent.)

Either Romney or Gingrich would do well in any debate, though Romney v. Obama on health care would be pay-for-view stuff: “I didn’t raise taxes, you did. I didn’t cut Medicare. You did. I provided insurance for the 8% of Bay State citizens who didn’t have insurance, and you changed the insurance coverage of every American while failing to cover every American.” Romney has used the debates to hone this argument, and it showed last night. His opponents refuse to hear the answer, but undecided primary voters and independents and many Democrats would in the fall. The reflexive refusal of critics to credit a superb response doesn’t diminish the response.

Nor does hysteria among the MSM create a significant gaffe. Romney’s $10,000 bet was a flub because it opened the door to the hand-wringing about Romney’s wealth. There are many responses and they will be coming from Team Romney, some of them pretty funny, but with a do-over, Romney would skip that or add “let’s bet $10,000 to go to our favorite charity.” No matter, the mistake opened the door for Romney to discuss with voters his biggest obstacle in the fall –his wealth, and I hope he does so in the next three weeks and the months beyond. Indeed he began that conversation last night with the superb answer to the set-up question about “the last time you were pressed for money,” candidly stating he had been blessed but that his father, who had been very poor, taught him the how and why of work and that his experience in his church brought him face to face with tough financial circumstances. Critics of Romney who say he doesn’t connect with audiences got a glimpse of how he does when he does, perhaps earlier in the campaign than his team would have liked, but the Gingrich surge is accelerating the timetable.

More on Newt in tomorrow’s Washington Examiner column, but his strengths and vulnerabilities were on display last night. I do not think he can sustain the surge, but his charisma is real, just as real as his vulnerabilities to the Chicago machine.

Rick Santorum had a great night, and in many ways was working the Iowa caucus audience with very specific messages and reminders, and I believe he could be the surprise. Every voter dislodged from Newt needs to find a home, and the former Pennsylvania senator told them again and again last night that he was the place they could safely land. Rick Perry turned in by far his best performance of the campaign, but with an effort as damaged as the drone he used to effectively slam the president last night it is hard to see a plausible comeback trail, though this year is so much more fluid than any that has gone before.

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