If Rick Santorum falls short in the 2012 Republican presidential contest, he may look back at Wednesday night’s freewheeling presidential debate as a crucial opportunity that got away.
The former Pennsylvania senator had his winning moments, but he probably failed to do enough to change the dynamics of a race that seems to be shifting slowly back in Mitt Romney's direction, particularly in Arizona and Michigan, which hold pivotal primaries Tuesday.
A strong performance by Santorum had the potential to reset the GOP nomination battle. Instead, he may have hurt himself with some conservative voters, who could have second thoughts about supporting him after video clips of the debate play out over the next day or two—particularly those in which he defends his votes for earmarked spending and apologizes for backing the No Child Left Behind education law.
Romney, who had just as much at stake as Santorum, avoided any stumbles that might have set him back -- though in the course of delivering a strong appeal for support from social conservatives, he may have given Democrats fresh ammunition to use against him in the fall, if he becomes the nominee.
But the spotlight was clearly on Santorum. For the first time in 20 nationally televised debates, he was placed at center stage by the TV producers. And he started strongly, with a composed and mature manner that had him sloughing off attacks from his opponents with a lighthearted grin.
He went after Romney over government earmarks, pointing out the former governor had requested them from Washington when he was in Massachusetts and when he headed the Salt Lake City Olympics.
As the exchange over spending for pet projects grew heated, a confident Santorum dressed Romney down.
"You don't know what you're talking about," he said, prompting a mirthful reaction from Newt Gingrich, who was sitting on the other side of Romney. The former House speaker piled on, essentially accusing Romney of demagogy for running TV ads that are blistering Santorum for supporting earmarks during his 16 years in Congress.
Gingrich called it "kind of silly" for Romney to "run an ad attacking somebody else for getting what you got, and then claiming what you got wasn't what they got, because what you got was right and what they got was wrong."
But Santorum failed to maintain his advantage as the evening wore on. His lowest point came after he admitted having cast a Senate vote for No Child Left Behind, the signature education plan of Republican President George W. Bush, "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."
The audience, which seemed to be heavy with Romney and Rep. Ron Paul supporters, booed, and Santorum let it get under his skin.
"Politics is a team sport, folks," he said, good-naturedly lecturing the crowd in the Mesa Arts Center outside Phoenix. "I admit the mistake, and I will not make that mistake again."
Paul, who had earlier defended his characterization of Santorum as a "fake" conservative, pounced.
"He calls this a team sport. He has to go along to get along, and that's the way the team plays," he said, referring to Santorum. "But that's what the problem is with Washington. That's what's been going on for so long."
The Texas congressman's remark drew cheers and applause from the audience in the Arizona debate hall. It also could have a significant impact over the next few days in Michigan.
Voters are getting bombarded by negative ads from the Romney forces that depict Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider. The debate may have reinforced those attacks, and also undercut one of Santorum’s strongest selling points—his image as a principled and consistent conservative.
If that happens, it will greatly complicate Santorum's efforts to score what would be a game-changing upset in Romney's native state. The momentum shift from the last debate of the GOP campaign may end up benefiting Romney instead.