As I prepared to watch the GOP presidential debate in Iowa last night I was filled with a sense of trepidation, not for the performance of the candidates, but for the media. After the “whiner in the Carolinas” earlier this year I had begun to wonder if anyone was still capable of delivering a useful display of the candidates’ bona fides without relying on Tweets, YouTube videos, holographic correspondents, or product placement advertising. By the time it was done, I am pleased to report, at least a modicum of my faith in the broadcast networks had been restored.
Fox delivered an ably constructed package for primary voters around the nation. I will confess that their opening demand to “put aside the talking points” sounded like nothing more than a slogan, but the format and the frequently aggressive — sometimes too aggressive — lineup of questions succeeded in putting the presidential hopefuls through their paces.
Make no mistake: the debate itself was geared for the national audience of primary voters far more than the locals who will vote in the Ames straw poll this weekend. (The appearances by Romney and Huntsman should be adequate proof of that.) As Ed Morrissey pointed out recently, this spectacle comes down to retail politics in its oldest form. There may have been a few Iowans still on the fence who could have been shaken down by something they saw on the stage, but for the most part that’s simply not how the game is played in the Hawkeye State. The eventual winner will be determined by how many babies T-Paw kissed, how frequently mothers with small children were wrangled into Bachmann’s petting zoo, or how heartily Herman Cain managed to laugh when the 378th voter asked him if he could promise to fix the nation’s deficit, “in thirty minutes or less.”
None of this, however, means that there weren’t plenty of moments of interest. It’s very possible that the next few days will see some significant movement in the primary race, in part due to the performance of the candidates on that stage. As usual with these dog and pony shows, I’ll begin with the folks who didn’t seem to fare very well.
If there was one loser on the stage last night it was probably Jon Huntsman. Given his virtual lack of presence in the national polls, expectations for the former ambassador to China were low, but he still managed to duck under that bar. Huntsman came across as being quite nervous and halting in his answers. (This might be expected, given that it was his first outing, but he really can’t afford any mistakes.) Jon’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that the moderators seemed to feel free to simply poke him with pitchforks on the rare occasions when they paid him any attention at all. This was in evidence when his first question, rather than being on policy, wound up being a list of his ties to the Obama administration and a query as to whether he might have signed on to run with the wrong party. That set him back on his heels and he never seemed to fully recover. His total camera time was barely more than the woman in the audience with the tea bags on her hat.
Another virtual non-presence on the stage was Rick Santorum. He actually had to protest on a few occasions when the rock stars kept sucking all the air out of the room and he was left dining at the kiddies’ table. When Rick was handed the ball a few times, the moderators seemed to steer the debate in the strangest of directions, pitting Santorum against Ron Paul. This is a strange match-up to begin with, since Paul shouldn’t have been anybody’s target of choice, but Santorum willingly complied. Iowa is a custom fit for the Pennsylvanian’s brand of social conservatism, but it’s hard to see how either the debate or the upcoming county fair will allow him the breakout moment he so desperately needed. Personally, I’m looking for Rick to drop out before too very long.
While we’re on the subject of Ron Paul, the only news there was that there was no news to report. Aside from his odd sparring matches with Santorum (which he appeared to win handily in most cases,) the Texas congressman and Libertarian favorite stuck to his well practiced routine and standard platform of isolationism and returning to the gold standard. Ron always does well in straw polls on the strength of his aggressive and incredibly well organized army of supporters. This has yet to translate into any national traction on a level needed to win Best in Show, though, and not much changed last night.
Perhaps the strangest bird on the stage, though, was Newt Gingrich. In the opinion of most talking heads, Newt’s campaign had been written off as road kill on the electoral highway within days of announcing, but he took to his podium at this debate projecting the air of a man who was about to knock Romney out of the top slot. And while all the other kids on the playground were squaring off against each other for one-on-one battles, Newt decided to pick a fight with the teacher. He spent more time blasting the moderators than the rest of the field. Still, his delivery was very sharp for most of the evening. If there is one lesson to be learned from this, it’s that you should never discount the importance of experience, and Gingrich has that by the bucket load.
The feature battle of the evening which drew the largest media feeding frenzy was the hand to hand combat between Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty. They each took some hard shots from the moderators who then appeared to revel with glee in the opportunity to thrust them at each other like prize roosters in an illegal cock fight. Bachmann was hit with what seemed a patently unfair question from Chris Wallace as to whether she would be “subservient” to her husband in the White House. She batted that one away with grace and style, though. T-Paw was quickly reminded how he had totally failed to confront Mitt in South Carolina, setting the stage for him to don his rhetorical brass knuckles. (Which he absolutely did.)
When the blows began falling, it was one of the most impressive displays of the campaign to date. “Minnesota Nice” very quickly had the bar lowered to, “not urinating on your opponent.” Pawlenty hit Bachmann on her lack of any substantive legislative record and no executive experience at all. Michele fired back, pointing to every pockmark on the former governor’s record — real or perceived — which she could drum up. I’m still not entirely sure who won that faceoff, but the voters were surely left with the impression that both of them had the “fire in the belly” required to square off with Obama in the general election debates to come.
The final two entries in the event are the hardest to rate. Herman Cain seemed to be facing two challenges, with one being of his own making. First, the moderators didn’t seem to want to spend much time hearing from him, and when they did he wasn’t given the easy set-ups to go after somebody else on the stage in the way the Bachmann vs. T-Paw and Santorum vs. Paul matchups played out. Cain also may have been hindered by a refreshing blast of honesty, so rarely seen among candidates. When asked about some of his previous foreign policy comments, he became “Plain Speaking Cain” and admitted that he hadn’t known much about Afghanistan, but had learned a lot since. I nearly stood up and applauded at that sort of integrity, but also worried that such admissions were powerful ammunition for his opponents in what is always a very dirty type of political trench warfare. But for the rest of the evening, the moderators seemed to try to keep Cain on the sidelines and there wasn’t much he could do about it. When he did get the chance to speak, Herman Cain was probably the most charismatic figure on the stage, but he wasn’t given much of a chance to shine.
And that leaves us with Mitt Romney, perceived front-runner and the assumed de-facto target for the rest of the field. I am frankly at a loss to explain what happened there. For my viewing dollar, the moderators — with a few minor exceptions — appeared to pitch Mitt a collection of policy softballs which he deftly drove out of the infield. The rest of the candidates were no better, seeming to forget that Romney was on the stage a few minutes after the opening bell. The one exception was when the moderator dared Pawlenty make up for his previous no-show and attack Mitt about “Obamneycare.” T-Paw took up the gauntlet in fine form, but Romney pretty much laughed off the attack and Tim quickly went back to attacking Bachmann.
So who “won” the debate? This is a question which comes up after every one of these exercises, and it never fails to make me feel tired. I often wish we had a set of Olympic judges to score these things, if only to stop the pointless posturing in the aftermath. Fans of each of the candidates will surely claim the mantle of victory, as was borne out in my e-mail in-box within hours. Even Huntsman’s team sent out a declaration of how brilliantly he did and how this would surely be the beginning of a triumphant march to the nomination. One blog proprietor had an online survey going immediately following the debate and informed us that Newt was taking a huge lead.
As for me, it’s very hard to make such a call. Bachmann was already looking good in Iowa, and she succeeded by not suffering any glaring breakdowns. (Though some of her attacks on T-Paw are going to be the subject of fact checking in the days to come.) Pawlenty had the most to lose last night, since another timid, “born to be mild” moment would surely have doomed him. But he rose to the occasion and came out fighting well above his weight class. Will that be enough to deliver the strong finish he needs in the straw poll to keep his campaign alive? We’ll know by the end of the weekend.
If we must pick a winner, I suppose I’ll have to go with Romney. And that’s not because of any brilliant performance on Mitt’s part. He simply managed to pull a bye in the head to head matchups. In the end, Romney is playing the classic, establishment GOP card of, “I’m who’s next.” And so far it seems to be working.