That's how I'd characterize the GOP presidential debate held by CNN earlier tonight in Mesa, Arizona. There were a few memorable moments, but little that was likely to change the tenor of the race.
Earlier today, I posted that Romney needed to make the medicine go down a little easier for conservatives whose objections to his candidacy are stronger than their support for any of his rivals; that Santorum needed to soothe the anxieties of those who fear that nominating him would lead to a six-month sermon masquerading as a presidential campaign; and that Gingrich needed to retake the spotlight after spending most of this month gasping for the oxygen of relevancy. So how'd they do?
Romney is an exceedingly odd political creature in that he seems capable of an endless variety of tactical shifts yet totally unable to alter his campaign at the strategic level. Whether you loved him or hated him coming into tonight, it's unlikely that your opinion was changed over the course of these two hours. He had his bad moments, such as his trademark chuckling condescension when he told CNN's John King at the debate's end, "You get to ask the questions you want, I get to give the answers I want,” (and this to a softball question about what the biggest public misconception about him was). On the plus side, however, his canned, often-stilted answers actually looked professional by contrast with Santorum, who -- apart from a few responses that had obviously been prepped -- gave rambling, discursive replies throughout the evening.
Where Santorum himself was concerned, the big surprise of the night was that his Achilles' heel proved to be something other than religion, which he handled deftly (asked about contraception, he gave an eloquent response bemoaning the pathologies associated with out-of-wedlock births and concluded with a wonderfully succinct, "You know, here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this. Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it. That's what they do. That's not what we do.")
Where the former senator really stumbled was in his defense of being ... well, a former senator. Twice in the night, Santorum put the worst possible spin on senate votes that he's not particularly proud of. When Ron Paul pressed him on having voted for Title X (the Department of Health and Human Services' family planning program) as part of a broader appropriation, Santorum responded, "I think I was making it clear that, while I have a personal moral objection to it; even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it." If this sounds like John Kerry on paper, it sounded even more so in the debate hall, where the audience booed. Later in the debate, when asked about No Child Left Behind by King, Santorum answered, "I have to admit, I voted for that. It was 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 booing was louder the second time around.
As for Gingrich, he came within inches of his former glory, but fell just short. Gone was the sober (verging on somnambulant) figure from the last two debates, replaced by the partisan pugilist of old. Newt was fiery and definitive, particularly when redirecting the question on social issues (having mastered the art of moderator jiu-jitsu, Gingrich's response to King's contraception question included the scolding, "not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide."). As usual, he was a reliable source for applause lines, but he failed to generate a moment big enough to transcend his current morass.
Bottom line: Romney leaves the evening in about the same place. Santorum declines slightly. Gingrich improves at the margins. Ron Paul continues to follow a trajectory that will likely see him end up as the highest-paid television pitchman for gold in the nation's history.
To the extent that tonight has an influence on the upcoming voting (which I suspect will be slight), it likely works to Romney's benefit, chipping away ever so slightly at the conservative groundswell for Santorum. Tuesday's results in Arizona and Michigan will be the acid test.