Where the GOP field stands: Mesa melee edition

For the first time since the voting started, the race for the Republican presidential nomination is stable. If there were any lingering doubts about Rick Santorum’s staying power since the last edition of this series, they should be long gone by now.

What about Wednesday night’s debate, you ask? Well, what about it? It was the first debate this year that didn’t have much of an impact. None of the candidates made any major mistakes, nor did any shine. The front-runners turned in poor-to-mediocre performances, which led one political commentator to call the debate “one of the worst of the presidential campaign” and to claim that “the real winner tonight was President Obama.” Those who argue that the debate schedule is responsible for the party’s weak positioning against the president may have a point after all. The competitiveness of the race, combined with the need to appeal to the most conservative elements of the party, has forced the candidates to take positions that, while popular with the base, are unpopular with the general electorate. Nevertheless, someone has to be the nominee. So here is where the GOP field stands, in order of the RealClearPolitics national polling average:

Mitt RomneyGage Skidmore

Mitt Romney speaking at a grassroots early voting rally in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 13, 2012.

Rick Santorum: Santorum had a bit of a rough time Wednesday night, and easily turned in one of his worst debate performances. Back when he was just another also-ran candidate, he managed to distinguish himself with a string of surprisingly strong debate performances in which he appeared genuine, thoughtful, and even articulate. But now that he’s in the spotlight, things aren’t so easy.

As one of the front-runners (if not the front-runner), Santorum is getting the kind of scrutiny and attention he didn’t get before. Wednesday night’s debate, in which Santorum spent precious air time defending this or that vote, was a great reminder of why it’s so hard to win election with a Senate voting record. Still, Santorum fended off several of the attacks well, and while the seedy intricacies of his voting record might dampen enthusiasm for him, the overall impact is likely to be marginal — it’s not like Republicans were that excited to begin with, and Romney isn’t exactly firing up the base.

Wednesday night’s debate aside, Santorum has had a solid couple of weeks since surging into national contention. Although he’s lost some ground to Romney in Michigan, he’s still tied or slightly ahead in the polls. Meanwhile, he continues to hold a wide lead in most national polls. Of course, that lead could evaporate if he does poorly in Michigan, but unless he loses by a wide margin, he should keep his big leads in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Washington; victories in those states should ensure that he remains relevant beyond Super Tuesday.

Mitt Romney: Meanwhile, Mitt Romney managed to regain some lost ground since his triple defeat two weeks ago, and now has pulled back to even with Santorum in the crucial state of Michigan. His campaign funds are depleted but still far ahead of the competition. Between his war chest and super PAC money, Romney will likely double down on ads to try to seize victories in friendly Arizona and unexpectedly competitive Michigan. The latter is particularly important for him to maintain his status as the front-runner, which he needs for both momentum and money.

On Wednesday night, Romney benefited from a strong cheering section in the audience, which reinforced his points and made him come off better on television. Fortunately, he had no major gaffes to turn the audience against him (he seems to have put his betting days behind him). One strange thing: It seemed as though his aides discovered that the Olympics poll better than Romney and so encouraged him to bring them up as much as possible. Nevertheless, this was merely odd, not damaging.

On the other hand, Romney’s attacks on Santorum were damaging and effective. This was particularly true because Romney used them in moderation; he leveraged Ron Paul’s obvious dislike for Santorum to do his dirty work for him. Romney’s attacks worked because he laid them out simply and forced Santorum into complicated answers. While Romney could take a black-and-white line on earmarks, Santorum had to defend his position in an elaborate dance. Anything that makes Romney seem forthright is a welcome change for his campaign.

Newt Gingrich: Irrelevant. Seriously, though, his performance last night was good, but in a typical, unsurprising way. It’s hard to imagine that it will do much to change the trajectory of the race. For a candidate who relies on debates to give him momentum, that’s worrying. If Gingrich doesn’t manage to win Georgia in a couple of weeks, even Sheldon Adelson might start thinking twice about him.

Ron Paul: Paul continues to pursue a delegate-collection strategy in the hopes that he might hold some sway at the convention, or in the lead-up to it, in the increasingly likely event that none of the candidates wins the magic number of delegates (1,144) needed to clinch the nomination. Paul has yet to win a state outright, but that might change depending on what happens in Maine. Although Romney was declared the winner of the state’s caucuses, the Paul campaign cried foul since Washington County delayed its caucuses due to inclement weather. After initially refusing to change the result, the state party has reversed course and will announce new results in March. At this point, it is unlikely to matter, as Paul will still likely end up with the most delegates from the state (thanks to his supporters’ superior knowledge of the post-straw-poll process), and any symbolic victory from being announced the winner will be mitigated by the long delay. In the meantime, Paul seems content to team up with Romney, with whom he seems to have a warm personal relationship, and focus his attacks on Santorum. At Wednesday night’s debate, the congressman gleefully called the ex-senator a “fake” without a hint of hesitation.