I have a confession to make. Like every other political junkie in America, a month ago I was sick of the debates and thought the process demeaning and damaging to our candidates. I now have to say I missed them. I also have to say that I thought tonights in Meza, Ariz., was by far the best.
In all probability we have seen the last of the Republican debates for this nomination cycle. But instead of saying, Amen! I now think they have served a purpose. The four men who have endured the 20-debate survival course over these many months are clearly the best and most articulate of the group that started this process so long ago.
The debates have not only been a rating monster for the networks who carried them, but they have altered the process dramatically and allowed candidates to survive who would have been washed out in the first wave by the old rules. The old rules were money and organization or die. The new rules are a plane ticket to the next debate and be smart and don't quit.
Two of the final four, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, didn't have money or organization and would have been gone months ago if that was all that mattered. Both have moved to the forefront by being smart, knowledgeable and able to articulate their points of view without the Romney millions to spend on attack ads. Gov Romney, himself, the presumed inevitable nominee from the start of this campaign and the establishment favorite finished all 20 with flying colors and was never seriously wounded in any of them with everyone else taking shots at him. He has actually done better in the debates then he has at the polls and again gave a solid performance tonight. He is certainly the most improved from four years ago. Newt again showed that the debates are his oxygen and his performance tonight made viewers take another look at him. The former speaker has returned from political death at least twice by being viewed as the smartest guy on the stage throughout the debates and did so again tonight. Whether this will be enough to overcome his organizational weaknesses we will have to see but he certainly showed his enormous knowledge and communication skills.
Rick Santorum, the underdog who is now the front-runner pro tem and winner of surprise victories in Iowa, Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, had an excellent night and only reinforced the voters who are flocking to him as the conservative alternative to Romney.And Ron Paul, the man with the consistent message and passionate following again stated his unconventional views in the same intense tone with the same logic and humor. Even though I disagree with him on many things I admire him and respect his place on the stage and in this campaign.
One of the questions tonight was describe yourself in one word. Paul argued "consistent" and he surely practices that virtue. Santorum stated "courage." He has that in spades and his survival and victories from the back of the pack has proved that daily. He also states what he believes in spite of the discomfort it might cause some others. Gov. Romney said "resolute" and that certainly describes his six-year plus pursuit of his party's nomination and the the presidency.
The only answer that was far off was Newt's self-description of "cheerful." Knowing him for 30-plus years a "cheerful warrior" is not the description I would use to characterize this very serious man. Smart, persistent, dogged might work better, but never underestimate his brilliance or determination. Winning the presidency is easy compared to leading a revolution to get a Republican majority in the House in the '90s.
The debates entertained us, educated us, disgusted us and infuriated us, but they have served a purpose. I, for one, think any of the three potential nominees, and Paul is not included, can more than handle the president in the fall debates.
And as we close out this chapter of 2012 campaign, let's not forget the others who the debates kept in or finished off.
Michele Bachman, with her memorized sound bites, was treated like a substantial candidate after her opening New Hampshire debate performance, whereas she is not treated as a serious peer in the House Republican caucus.
A guy never elected to any office who sold pizza and hamburgers for a living gave us entertaining, substance-free performances in the debates , and rode them to a temporary poll lead and straw poll victory in Florida. I kinda of miss old “9-9-9” and Hermain Cain certainly entertained us through the debates in spite of making this thing into a soap opera and a version of Housewives of Atlanta.
The other three men who actually were elected to statewide jobs as governor and were viewed as eminently qualified, failed the debate test.
Gov. Perry, the perfect conservative candidate on paper and three-term governor of the second largest state in the country crashed and burned on the debate stage before our eyes.
Gov. Huntsman, an extremely talented and thoughtful man, couldn’t manage a breakout moment in any debate.
Gov. Pawlenty, the Washington establishment favorite candidate and tough hockey player, came off as a whimp when he couldn’t lay the wood to Romney, and was the first to cry out “No Mas! No Mas!” and quit after the Iowa straw poll.
Now the voters get to alter the process by voting and the old rules pick up as always. Television commercials, direct hit mail pieces, candidate forums, winning delegates, raising money and all the other elements of the campaign season are now the road to victory. I think that even though they may not want it, another debate or two might be in our futures. But if not, thank you gentlemen and lady for the ride. It's been better than any reality TV show!
Ed Rollins is a Fox News contributor. He is a former assistant to President Ronald Reagan and managed his reelection campaign. He is a senior presidential fellow at Hofstra University and is in the Political Consultants Hall of Fame.