Fans of the “history is cyclical” theory got plenty to cheer about last night. Picture this: the GOP primary race has a frontrunner who is leading Romney in the national polls and in several polls of key upcoming primary states. He is deeply religious and connects with that subsection of Republicans much better than Romney, speaking about – and being asked about – his faith quite a bit on the trail. He connects with Southern voters and very conservative voters more than Romney, which is where the strength of his lead comes from. His name is Rick, and he has it all; then Rick goes to a debate and flushes it all down the proverbial toilet.
If it seems like you’ve heard the story before, you have: it’s the path followed by both Ricks in this primary contest. It was so fitting to see Rick Perry in the audience last night as a kind of symbol for how this race has gone. We could call this the Icarus primary, really: weak GOP candidates begin to soar on tenuous wings of wax, and as they soar into the frontrunner’s position the wings melt under the heat of the scrutiny received. Rick Santorum, as we saw last night, turns out no differently than any of the other johnny-come-latelys.
His responses in defense of earmarks and No Child Left Behind will haunt his campaign forever. The fact that he was booed multiple times last night only set in stone the narrative that he had an absolute miserable performance. Romney didn’t give his best performance by any means – in my opinion, he kept arguments going longer than he should have several times – but Romney didn’t have to have his best night. He just needed to be better than Santorum, and he clearly was.
Mark Halperin over at TIME Magazine gave Romney a B and Santorum a D for the night. That seems about right. The Hill’s GOP12 blog seemed to grade on a curve and gave Romney an A and Santorum a C (the lowest grade of the night). Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post’s blog The Fix ranked Romney and Paul as the two winners and Santorum as the biggest loser. Prior to the debate last night, Romney was leading Santorum about 77-11 on Intrade. This morning, it’s 79-7.
And so we see recent history repeating itself, as a Rick steps into a prime opportunity to prove himself and cement his frontrunner position – and instead leaves the stage bloodied, battered, and broken with no shot of holding on to his position in the race. Or, we might say, with wax dripping from where wings once were.