It was hard to peg the precise amplitude of Mitt Romney's smile at the third GOP presidential debate. While his opponents bickered with each other, he stood amused. Was it the grin the father of the bride keeps when the groom's mother gives a toast that goes on too long? Or was it the gentle phased-out look of a parent at a kindergarten play?
The debate had the makings of a serious discussion about leadership, what form it should take, whether the candidates have demonstrated it, and how it should be applied in Washington. However, this discussion took place in a roller derby where that underlying theme was obscured by people trying to bruise and batter each other. Criticisms and veiled critiques broke out into the open among candidates desperate to avoid being eliminated from consideration. In the end, there was a lot of arm flailing. Everyone went round and round, and the lot of them wound up where they had stood before the debate began.
When nothing changes, that helps the front-runner, Romney. But Romney did more than coast and avoid getting drawn into any of the fights. When he spoke, he stayed focused on the economy and his experience in business as the only one who "actually worked in the real economy." People care about jobs, not the minutia the other candidates were debating.
Usually on a fight card, the main event is held last, but Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Tim Pawlenty reversed that order. The Minnesota Melee was biggest and came first. Pawlenty argued that Bachmann boasts about leading fights in Washington but never wins those fights. "Leading and failing is not the objective," he said. "If that's your view of effective results, please stop. … You're killing us."
(RELATED: Mitt Romney's low-key Iowa campaign)
Bachmann responded that what voters want is a leader who doesn't bend and that her success should be measured by the strength of her stance, not by how much progress she makes. "I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress," Bachmann said. "That is what qualifies me, as a fighter and representative of the people, to go to Washington, D.C., and to the White House. People are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting."
To make her case for the perils of not standing firm, she used Pawlenty's record against him, noting his support for cap and trade, a cigarette tax, and support for an individual health care mandate. She argued that his record "sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me."
Children, children, Romney seemed to be saying with his smile as he looked on.
Bachmann boasted that she opposed lifting the debt ceiling at all and suggested the S&P downgrade was a vindication of her position. (Earlier in the day, S&P had actually said the opposite.) Sen. Rick Santorum chastised Bachmann, arguing that her brand of leadership was merely "showmanship" and wouldn't work in the real world.
Bachmann and Pawlenty went several rounds. The Fox moderators were tough and good throughout, but this was the moment when the thread was nearly lost completely. In a country where so many people think their elected leaders are out of touch with the grim state of their lives, the back and forth must have sounded like a debate over dessert toppings.
The two Minnesotans went after each other so hard because they have the most at stake in the straw-poll vote taking place among Republican activists on Saturday. Pawlenty's campaign is struggling. He needs to do well in the straw poll to keep donors writing checks. Iowa is a winnowing state. It doesn't pick presidents, but the caucuses narrow the field. A bad straw-poll showing can end a candidacy, too. If Pawlenty doesn't do well enough on Saturday, his campaign may die the way Lamar Alexander's did in 2000.
Bachmann has a strong following and organization, and she is likely to do well in Saturday's vote. She couldn't afford to lose her momentum, and she didn't. She parried Pawlenty's attacks forcefully.
The second debate of the night was between Newt Gingrich and Fox News. The former House speaker was asked about the mass defection of his aides and about his overspending, and he shot back that it was a gotcha question. "I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games," he said.
(RELATED: Tim Pawlenty fights for the spotlight)
Great answer. Great theater. Very silly. Gingrich is a man of a thousand ideas, but leadership is about ideas and implementation. Gingrich has shown a lack of discipline in his professional and private life. A question about an undisciplined campaign goes directly to his abilities as a leader. Gingrich made this point later when talking about Ronald Reagan, who, he pointed out, was able to pass tax cuts with a Democratic Congress by rallying the country. That kind of thing requires operational discipline that Gingrich hasn't shown.
The third fight was between Rick Santorum and Ron Paul over Iran. Paul, who broadly disapproves of U.S. meddling in the affairs of other nations, said the United States should not fret about Iran gaining nuclear weapons. Santorum jumped on Paul, saying anyone who held Paul's view "is obviously not seeing the world very clearly." Paul accused Santorum of a march to war identical to the one that led to the conflict in Iraq.
Paul was once again the crowd favorite. He will do well in the straw poll. When he talks about individual liberty and spending restraint, it sounds far more authentic than when the other candidates sound similar themes.
It was Gov. Jon Huntsman's first debate. He offered his own version of leadership. He was the only candidate who praised the House Republican debt-limit deal. He stood by his support of civil unions. He embraced the moderate view of leadership focused on working together and getting solutions. He seemed out of place in a party that doesn't define leadership that way. If Michele Bachmann is red meat, he is soybean.
Still, in a debate about leadership and whether it is demonstrated through compromise or by steadfast adherence, the view was clearly tilted toward the latter. When the candidates were asked if, in order to get a agreement on cutting spending, they would accept a deal that included a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, not one candidate said they would.
This was the last debate before Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the race. He has a populist appeal, a record in his three terms as governor that will sound good to GOP activists, and a network of fundraisers ready to launch his campaign. He is slated to announce Saturday, which means Mitt Romney may only have a few more days to enjoy that smile.
Visit Slate for more politics news.