ROMNEY AND SANTORUM: THE WARMONGERS!

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- If this was the last Republican debate, or the last important one, it was as entertaining and revealing as most of the previous 19. And scary.

Politically, Mitt Romney did what he wanted to do. With help from cranky old Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, who seemed engagingly detached from the whole thing, Romney hung Washington, the Republicans' favorite punching bag, around his new principal opponent, Rick Santorum. He actually got Santorum, a self-proclaimed outsider, to defend the way Washington works and accuse Romney of being an outsider who does not understand the ways of the hated capital.

Paul delivered the knockout punch after Santorum said that as a senator he had supported President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation because:

"Sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader." Then, for good measure, he added: "You don't know what you're talking about."

Paul retorted: "He calls this a team sport. He has to go along to get along, and that's the way the team plays, but that's what the problem is with Washington."

The obviously conservative, fiercely anti-Washington crowd in Mesa, Ariz., a state that holds its primary on Tuesday, the same day as the more important Michigan primary, was booing Santorum by the end of the evening.

Romney's self-confidence and the homework he obviously did on Santorum's congressional record carried the night. Santorum was on the defensive most of the time, Paul was also all over the former Pennsylvania senator, and Gingrich, leaning back and smiling or laughing a good deal of the time, did not seem to much care about opponents he clearly sees as less than his intellectual equals. He topped himself when the moderator, CNN's John King -- CNN has done a terrific job on these debates and made them the centerpiece of the Republican primary campaign -- asked each man to describe himself with one word. Paul said, "Consistent." True. Santorum said, "Courageous." C'mon. Romney said, "Resolute." Really, you old flip-flopper? Gingrich delighted the crowd by saying, "Cheerful."

That was the second Comedy Central-ready line, or word, in the debate. Paul topped all when King asked him why he called Santorum "a fake," meaning fake conservative. Paul's answer: "Because he's a fake."

So it's possible that Romney has eliminated the last man standing, the late-surging Santorum. But if I were a Republican and all I had as evidence was last Wednesday's show, I'd vote for Paul. I know he has as much chance of winning as I do, but he was the only guy up there who did not seem ready and anxious for war, in Syria, in Iran, in any pre-emptive place the others could think of. That was what was scary, particularly about Romney and Santorum.

Despite the country's economic condition, and the fact that we are running out of military men because of disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two leading Republican candidates seem ready to pull the intervention trigger again, with a kind of glee. They essentially attacked President Obama for not going into the Syrian civil war or using Israel as a surrogate to attack Iran.

While they were at it, Gingrich called for more American covert action in that part of the world. Interesting. Santorum called the president "timid" when it is obvious that Obama is a big fan of covert action and is undoubtedly doing much more of that than we now know. Romney went further, saying we, the United States, have a chance to "change the history of the world" by going for broke in the Middle East.

Paul, the old isolationist, jumped both Romney and Santorum, calling their ideas "reckless and risky." Then he added: "Why are we going to war so carelessly ... Unnecessary wars, offensive, undeclared."

Why indeed? Where have these guys been these last eight years?

So for two hours, I was a Paul man. I've always thought he was a little nutty, but not as nutty as going into more unwinnable wars.

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