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In a Republican nominating contest that has been marked by fiery debate performances, Tuesday’s debate, the twentieth and final such event, underwhelmed. No candidate delivered a memorable performance, and the debate lacked the fire that helped resuscitate some campaigns—think Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, for example—or flubs that sank others—think Rick Perry’s “oops” moment.

With the floodgates opened on so-called super PAC spending, this nominating cycle has seen an unusual level of menacing attack ads. But the unprecedented number of debates has offered voters an important chance to view their candidates in a (relatively) unscripted situation. Voters have responded in kind, and this year’s debates have received record ratings. So in a race that was supposed to be Mitt Romney’s for the taking, the debates have offered a leveling effect and have contributed to the race’s longevity. Newt Gingrich’s fiery debate performances in South Carolina, for example, were widely credited with his victory in that state, which played no small part in helping his candidacy limp forward.

So if the Republican debates have helped define the race, what impact does Tuesday’s debate have on the remainder of the contest?

Most observers have argued that Romney has the momentum going into next Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan, but this week’s debate occurred against the backdrop of a national surge by Rick Santorum, who now has a slim lead in national polls. But Santorum failed to deliver a knock out blow on Tuesday, offering a convoluted response on Congressional ear marks and a rigmarole explanation of why he had chosen to endorse Arlen Spector over Patrick J. Toomey, Sr., his conservative rival, in the 2006 Senate election in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Romney, meanwhile, acquitted himself just well enough and offered a disciplined performance that saw him deliver a few effective jabs at Santorum over his Congressional voting record. To Santorum’s chagrin, Ron Paul continued to play the part of Romney’s unlikely attack dog. Paul delivered the night’s most memorable line when asked by CNN’s John King why he had chosen to air an ad describing Santorum as a fake. “Because he is a fake,” Paul said, grinning. On a set that resembled a set of school desks, Paul looked like the class prankster who had just made a fool of his teacher and got the entire class to laugh along with him. The only thing missing from Santorum’s embarrassed teacher get-up was his sweater vest. Paul continued to play that role throughout the evening, and Santorum could do little but look on in astonishment as the boyish Constitutionalist ran circles around him.

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The issues discussed in Tuesday’s debate, however, did little to set up the Republican candidates for the upcoming contests. The economic portion of Tuesday’s debate was dominated by a discussion over the federal deficit. Jobs seemed to take a backseat as the candidates bickered over one another’s budget-cutting credentials. That did not do the candidates any favors as they head into contests in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, which boast a 9.3 and 8.7 percent unemployment rate, respectively.

With the debate being held in Mesa, AZ, there was plenty of red meat served on the immigration question. But no candidate distinguished themselves on the issue, and the debate was a wash on this point as well.

When the debate shifted to social issues, Santorum owned the stage, but Romney turned in an acceptable performance on this point as well. Mystifyingly, no candidate brought up Romney’s shifting position on abortion, and Romney managed to escape unharmed on an issue that many Conservatives have doubted his credibility.

On the Middle East, Romney presented himself as the most statesman-like of the bunch as Santorum continued to pound his steady drumbeat for a war against Iran. Gingrich offered a blistering argument in favor of intervening in Iran, bringing up the historical backdrop of the Holocaust to explain Israeli thinking about an Iranian nuclear bomb. But the moment was an exception in his overall performance, which lacked the fire of his previous performances. As Slate’s John F. Dickerson wryly noted, “he sounded like a man who will make mountains of money on the lecture circuit.”

With no defining narrative emerging out of Tuesday’s debate, the time is long past to start looking long and hard at the delegate math of this year’s primary. Romney currently has the lead in delegates, but that lead does not amount to much at this point—only 12 percent of delegates have been divvied up. After Super Tuesday on March 6, 34 percent of delegates will have been decided. While those contests offer the opportunity for a candidate to deliver a knock out blow, polling data indicates that much of the race remains up in the air.

Of the upcoming contests, swing states Michigan and Ohio will be most closely watched. In Michigan, the race is currently in a dead heat. In Ohio, Santorum has the edge. On March 3, in a prelude to Super Tuesday, Washington will hold its GOP caucus, and according to the latest Public Policy Poll, Santorum has an 11 point lead in that state.

But given the state of the race, Super Tuesday appears unlikely to settle the affair. Georgia, which with 76 delegates is the largest state to go to the polls that day, is in a statistical tie according to the latest local poll. However, Mike Huckabee’s win there in 2008 should give hope to Santorum who appeals to a similarly minded religious electorate. Massachusetts, with 41 delegates, will likely go to Romney. In Idaho, with 32 delegates, the state’s significant Mormon population should give Romney a boost, though, according to media reports, Santorum has been generating some buzz in the state in recent weeks. But it is important to note that many of these primaries are proportional, so even if one candidate racks up a series of wins, a challenger could easily limp along and keep accumulating delegates in the hope of staging a late upset in a large state like Texas or California, both of which vote late in the calendar.

While the specter of a brokered convention seems ludicrous, if the candidates continue to amass delegates at about the same pace as they are currently doing, that dream may very well become a reality.

So with the race in flux, the fact that no narrative emerged out of Tuesday’s debate only reflects the state of the Republican nominating process, which now appears headed toward an extended fight not unlike the 2008 Democratic primary. And Tuesday’s debate only exacerbated this problem for all three candidates, as no one was able to craft a moment off of which they could pivot into Super Tuesday.

But is there any way one can find a winner in this mess? Yes—Barack Obama, who can only be watching with glee as his would be opponents destroy one another.

Elias J. Groll ’12, a former Managing Editor of the Crimson, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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