Rick Santorum's Missed Opportunity (The Note)

(Image Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

MESA, Ariz. - It could have been a very different night for Rick Santorum.

Instead of riding his wave of momentum to a strong showing in what is likely to be the final GOP presidential debate of the primary season, Santorum struck out. It's not just that he faced a tough and well-prepared opponent in Mitt Romney (which he did), it's that numerous times when either the moderator or one of his opponents threw a ball right in his strike zone, he watched it sail by.

One of the best examples came when Romney attacked the former Pennsylvania senator for his record on earmarks and Congress' voracious appetite for spending.

Santorum's response: "What happened the - the 12 years I was in the United States Senate, we went from the debt to GDP ratio, which is now over 100 percent. When I came to the Senate it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate it was 64 percent of GDP."

Instead of turning Romney's attacks into an opportunity to get on the offense and back on message, Santorum spent his time responding with process arguments and Washington gobbleygook speak. Santorum has spent the last couple of weeks portraying himself as an outsider. He undid all of that work in last night's CNN debate in Arizona.

Santorum couldn't seem to muster a clean comeback as he attempted to point out Romney hypocrisy for challenging him over earmarks when Romney, himself, had requested them for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

That task fell to Newt Gingrich:

"I think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got," Gingrich said to Romney. "I just think it's kind of silly for you to then turn around and 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."

As one smart Republican strategist told the Note, debates were never Santorum's strong suit:

"He's a retail guy and success will hinge on whether his operation can translate that."

And when it comes to Romney - he didn't really "win" anything last night. He didn't make a strong case for himself or his own record. He didn't put to rest concerns about his lack of a bigger, broader vision for November. He didn't make the case for himself as much as he made an effective case against Santorum.

More of ABC News' Political Director Amy Walter's debate winners and losers: http://abcn.ws/x70ORK

In case you missed it, last night's CNN debate in 60 seconds. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/x0MnYz

And on "Good Morning America" today ABC's Jake Tapper and George Stephanopoulos discussed how Romney was about to paint Santorum as a creature of Washington last night: http://abcn.ws/yUVW1R



-The Democratic National Committee, in a new web video out this morning, is labeling Mitt Romney as an "extreme candidate." The DNC focuses on Romney contention last night that the Arizona immigration law should be viewed as a model for the nation. WATCH: http://youtu.be/rZ1B2fr1fSc

-The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has a video of its own welcoming President Obama to Miami where he will travel today. According to the RNC, "The online ad highlights how gas prices have increased from $1.85 to $3.59 in three years under Obama. The RNC's day-long YouTube ad buy on Thursday is targeted to viewers watching news and politics content on YouTube in the Miami area." WATCH: http://bit.ly/zQD09J


HALEY BARBOUR SPEAKS. Could the battle for the Republican nomination go all the way to the Republican convention in August? Could we see an entirely new candidate getting into the race? One long-time Republican leader tells ABC News the answer to both questions is yes. "If the Republican primary voters continue to split up their votes in such a way that nobody is close to having a majority, then there is a chance that somebody else might get in," former Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour said in an interview with ABC News' Jonathan Karl. Barbour calls such a scenario unlikely, but not out of the question. "I think the odds of having a contested convention are not good but the fact that we are where we are and there is actually a possibility, I guess this is why there is so much talk," he said. A contested convention would mean another six months of Republicans battling Republicans, but Barbour says that's not necessarily bad for the party. "It is not accurate to say that a hotly contested convention is necessarily bad," Barbour said. "I am not saying it is necessarily good, but I don't think it is accurate to say it is necessarily bad. Let's just see." http://abcn.ws/zi0lm7

SARAH PALIN ALLIES TAKE PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE AGAINST HBO MOVIE. Seven of Sarah Palin's closest confidantes have yet to watch the HBO film "Game Change," which portrays her 2008 vice presidential bid, but they said they have already seen enough. On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, these current and former advisers to Palin, unleashed a torrent of criticism at the movie, which will premiere on Mar. 10. Palin's former aide Jason Recher dismissed it as a "false narrative cobbled together by a group of people who simply weren't there." Randy Scheunemann, who tutored Palin on foreign policy matters during the campaign, said: "To call this movie fiction gives fiction a bad name." "Looking at the trailers alone, get's my blood boiling," Palin's former spokeswoman Meg Stapleton noted. The three were joined by the treasurer of Palin's political action committee, Tim Crawford, Palin's former lawyer Tom Van Flein and aides, Doug McMarlin and Andy Davis. Crawford, Recher, McMarlin and Davis all currently have paid consulting contracts with Sarah PAC. None of the seven have screened the film, but based on what they have seen in a two-minute trailer and what they know of the book, "Game Change," authored by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, each said the movie presents an inaccurate portrait of Palin. http://abcn.ws/zuNzRN

CONGRESS EYES JOBS BILL. ABC's John R. Parkinson reports: With the payroll tax cut extended through the end of the year, unemployment insurance reformed, and the Medicare doc fix achieved, many of the president's top legislative priorities have been accomplished more than nine months before the national elections this fall. It's an unusual state of affairs for a Cardiac Congress that has been notorious for its brinksmanship - often waiting until the last moment to pass legislation critical to the economy whether it was a continuing resolution or the debt limit increase. So what's next? While the House of Representatives' agenda is not yet finalized through the end of the year, Republicans intend to forge ahead with their 'Plan for American Job Creators' - searching for ways to spur economic growth while also criticizing the president's failed economic policies. Once the House returns to session next Monday, Republicans will continue consideration of the American Energy and Infrastructure Act, which House Speaker John Boehner broke up into three separate pieces for action on the House floor. Last week, just before leaving town, the House approved one-third of the package - H.R. 3408 - Protecting Investment in Oil Shale the Next Generation of Environmental, Energy, and Resource Security Act, also known as the PIONEERS Act. http://abcn.ws/yCySTB



by ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield and Chris Good:

-Detroit Free Press Endorses Romney-With Caveats. It's a big endorsement at a big moment, but The Detroit Free Press threw in plenty of barbs under the headline, "Mitt Romney Is Best-But We Urge Him to Recapture Collaborative Spirit." Romney was "dead wrong" on the auto bailouts, has offered a "revisionist" explanation of that stance, has undergone "troubling changes" to woo conservative voters, and formerly "extolled" health care mandates before flip-flopping. "Who is the real Romney?" the paper asks, noting that he's "preferable" to the rest of the field. http://on.freep.com/zlo9p5

-Debate: What About Arizona? The GOP debate in Mesa, Ariz., may have turned attention toward the Grand Canyon State, but The Arizona Republic's Dan Nowicki notes that the discussion was light on Arizona's main issues, illegal immigration and border security. http://bit.ly/yHLIF7

-Ron Paul Heading to Oklahoma City. With most of the attention on Arizona and Michigan, some Super Tuesday states are getting left out of the action, but Oklahoma is seeing a bit of candidate traffic. Ron Paul will hold a rally in Oklahoma City in Saturday, becoming the third candidate to visit the state in two weeks, The Oklahoman Reports. http://bit.ly/AvBFqR

-Ohio Bound. Rick Santorum will spend more time in Ohio this weekend- the Plain Dealer reports he's added another campaign stop for March 3rd, the Saturday night before super Tuesday. http://bit.ly/z0CYnA

-Meanwhile, Ron Paul's strategy for Ohio is revealed by the Columbus Dispatch. A Paul campaign spokesman in Ohio told the Dispatch "the strategy in Ohio is twofold: pick up delegates by winning a few heavily Democratic congressional districts where GOP turnout is small, and get at least 20 percent of the statewide vote to earn a share of the at-large delegates." http://bit.ly/zUZIJ5

-Super PAC Strategy. In Tennessee, another super Tuesday state, the Romney campaign and Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney's presidential campaign, appear to be taking an almost "identical" approach to their efforts to court voters. The Tennessean reports that a locally broadcast commercial paid for by Restore Our Future takes practically the exact same approach as an email sent out Mitt Romney's campaign. Super PAC's and the campaigns they support are not legally allowed to coordinate.  http://tnne.ws/A2EvUV



@DavidMDrucker : If GOP candidates are smart, they'll condition their participation in future debates on focus on econ/jobs/foreign policy.

@PeterHambyCNN : Romney adviser guarantees: "We will win Michigan. We will win Michigan."  bit.ly/xM0hbY

@tomfitzgerald : Santorum not tempering his words ala typical presidential frontrunner, and his fans love it. Swing voters though?  ow.ly/9f3ey

@emilyrs : Christie blasts the RNC delegate allocation rules on Fox this AM. politi.co/xC2rRT

@KevinMaddenDC : how we celebratin? RT  @brianbeutler: Apparently I share a twirthday w/  @KevinMaddenDC. Still maintain I'm younger than him in real life.


-Mitt Romney starts Thursday in Phoenix, AZ with a speech at the Associated Builders and Contractors National Meeting. Romney then travels to Michigan for an evening Tea Party event in Milford, MI.

-Rick Santorum is in Dallas, TX for a fundraiser for his Super PAC.

-Newt Gingrich is on the trail in Washington State for a rallies in Kennewick and Spokane. Gingrich will also attend an evening rally in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

-ABC News' Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)


Check out The Note's Futures Calendar:  http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV


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