It was enough to give one chills.
This was the 20th time the Republican hopefuls had debated, and they seemed to be looking for whole new ways to communicate.
How else could you explain the statement of front-runner Rick Santorum, who said at one point: “I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in.”
See what I mean? Santorum was operating on a whole different level: Anybody can vote for the things he believes in. Anybody can vote for things that are principled. But it takes a man of real courage to vote for things that he neither believes in nor believes are principled.
At another point, Santorum said, “I have a personal moral objection (to contraception), but I’ve voted for bills that included it, too.”
It was that kind of night. Everything had been said but not everybody had said it, and the 90-minute debate proved Einstein’s theory that time can actually slow down.
I would accuse the candidates of just going through the motions, but there was hardly any motion.
Scratch that. CNN began with my favorite part of these spectacles: The candidate perp walk. One by one, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul paced wearily onto the stage. If their suits had not been uniformly funereal in color, they would have resembled prisoners on a chain gang.
During the debate, they seem so dispirited — even when regurgitating their pre-tested attack lines — that I expected to see Madame Defarge sitting in the front row of the audience, knitting their names into a sweater.
One word sums it up: desultory. Which Google Dictionary tells us means “lacking a plan, purpose or enthusiasm.” I would have been happy with just one of the three.
This was the first debate in which Santorum sat atop the national polls. And he was nervous. Very nervous. So nervous that he looked like a graduate of the Bob Dole School of Debating, in which you are allowed to speak only in the impenetrable language of Capitol Hill.
“In the 12 years I was in the United States Senate, we went from the debt to GDP ratio, which is now over 100 percent. When I came to the Senate it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate it was 64 percent of GDP,” Santorum said.
And, yes, that will be on the final.
The biggest innovation of Debate 20 (or should it be Debate XX?) was to force the candidates to sit at undersized desks, which made them look as if they had just wandered into a parent-teacher conference at their kid’s middle school.
Sitting down seemed to sap their energy further, and even the audience lacked the hearty bloodlust of previous Republican debate audiences.
At one point, Mitt Romney dragged out a scripted line and said to Santorum, “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere.”
“You are misrepresenting the facts,” Santorum replied.
And all the audience could manage was a weak, “Ooooo.”
The upside of having debate after debate was clear: They would introduce the Republican candidates to the voting public.
But the downside of having debate after debate has now revealed itself: They have introduced the Republican candidates to the voting public.
Take a look at the record: As the debates have lurched on week after week, month after month, as the public has gotten a good, hard look at the Republicans, what has happened? Barack Obama’s approval ratings have risen.
This is not what the Republican Party had in mind.
The candidates are not usually told the debate questions in advance, but John King did give the four men on stage an entire commercial break Wednesday to pick one word to describe themselves.
“Consistent,” said Paul.
“Courage,” said Santorum.
“Resolute,” said Romney.
“Cheerful,” said Gingrich.
How curious that not a single one said, “Presidential.”
Maybe they know something.
Roger Simon is editor of Politico.