Republican Reality Show Ends With Fuzzy Farewell Episode

Republican Reality Show Ends With Fuzzy Farewell Episode

“Fellow citizens and friends: The time comes upon every public man when it is best for him to keep his lips closed.”

-- Abraham Lincoln speaking to clamoring supporters from his front porch in Springfield, Ill. on May 18, 1860, after word spread that he had won the Republican presidential nomination at his party’s convention in Chicago.

One of the conventions of the reality-show genre is that after all the episodes have aired, the principle characters get back together to talk about what happened.

Now famous(ish), more jaded and having been forced to live in harmony or conflict with the show’s portrayal of them, the actors are required by their contracts and their own vanity to get back together and rehash the lowlights of the season.

By then, they have mostly become either cartoons of their on-show personas eager to market a catch phrase or angry victims of a producer’s caricature. Then they dish on each other. Did Snooki really mean what she said about The Situation? Would you still have voted sweet Suzy Creamcheese off the island if you knew that bad old Harvey Whatshisname was double-crossing you?

Wednesday night’s Republican debate in Arizona – the 20th contest since the debates began 42 weeks ago in Greenville S.C. – had that air. The four remaining candidates – the survivors– were sitting down and the host, CNN’s John King, offered up some questions you might find in a reality-show valedictory – “What’s one word that describes you?” “What’s the biggest misconception about you?”

King, having served up the pitch that led to Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina grand slam, was not in much of a mood to try throwing fastballs. It wasn’t as mild as where King started when CNN joined the debate game in June (Remember “Deep dish or thin crust?”) but certainly he was not looking to throw any heat.

The candidates mostly seemed ready for their long season to be over, too, except, of course, Gingrich, who seemed like Babe Ruth taking a last, wistful walk around Yankee Stadium.

It should not be surprising that the remaining four should have been the ones that were best at debating, but it is notable how much better all of them were than when they first began. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have changed the least, but both are better than when they began. Their answers are tighter, their arguments more closely wound.

Gingrich, like most virtuosos, experimented with different styles along the way (“attack muffin,” pitchman, haranguer of the press, etc.). He returned at the end, though, to the work of his best period: the avuncular but still impish philosopher. He tweaked his foes and King a bit here and there, but mostly was a happy warrior and back to his adverb-strewn self.

The most improved overall has been Rick Santorum. Wednesday was far from his best performance, owing to his struggles defending his conservative bona fides. But in the span of these nine months, Santorum seems to be a candidate transformed. He mostly has lost the Al Gore-like, non-verbal expressions of exasperation: sonic exhalations, eye rolls and theatrical jaw drops.

While Gingrich’s viability and survival through this ordeal of a primary process may be owed to debates, no candidacy has been shaped by debates the way that Santorum has. He figured out a way to debate and as a result, he is a viable contender for the presidency. In 20 debates, Santorum discovered a path to plausibility.

Santorum showed some of his new leading-man range on Thursday, but got himself in trouble when he tried to stick to his promise of being a no-spin candidate.

He gets credit for being blunt and apologetic when he talked about his vote on No Child Left behind, but he sure seemed to be spinning when he was talking about his Arlen Specter endorsement and why voting for a bill that included Planned Parenthood funding was the right choice. The guy who tells Republicans not to settle for less than true conservatism spent a lot of time explaining why he was willing to do just that in Congress.

The debate raises the stakes in Michigan in a big way for Santorum. It is already crucial for Romney, but given his difficulties in the televised closing arguments, Santorum now needs a show of electoral strength.

After an opening round of warm-up primaries and then a February hiatus the pace is about to pick up for the Republican race in a big way. Only 5 percent of the GOP’s 2,286 delegates have been spoken for since the beginning of the year. By the end of March, more than half will be off the table.

Once high-frequency, high-value primaries start, candidates in contention lose their appetite for debates. Unless the race is really deadlocked after the 695 delegates are divvied up on March 6 and March 13, Thursday’s debate was likely the last one.

And if it seemed like Romney’s smile was more genuine than usual on Wednesday, that’s the reason why.

The Debate in Quotes

Rick Santorum

“I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something.”

Mitt Romney

“You know, you get to ask the questions want, I get to give the answers I want. Fair enough?”

Newt Gingrich

“But I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. OK? So let's be clear here. If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.”

Ron Paul

KING: Congressman Paul, you've questioned the conservative -- fiscal conservative credentials of all these gentlemen but particularly this week Senator Santorum. You have a new television ad that labels him a fake. Why?

PAUL: Because he's a fake.

SANTORUM: I'm real, Ron. I'm real.

PAUL: Congratulations.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on