The debate in Ames, Iowa, in advance of the Straw Poll, was a far different affair than the first debate in New Hampshire. It was no longer the “We’re all in it to beat Obama!” love-fest. It was politics – 8 people who want the job, and want to draw a clear line in the sand that they are the people you can trust with the job. Or, more factually, seven people who engaged the idea, and Amb. John Huntsman.
Here is how I rank the contenders: (You can watch my debate wrap up from the Spin Room in Ames, Iowa here.)
1 – Former Speaker Newt Gingrich – Never mind sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi, or the NY-23rd. If you don’t think he won this debate – with room to spare – then check your premises. Or, check your “rigid ideology.” Or, if those two don’t work, check your head. Gingrich has finally found his opportunity to gain a constituency. He has positioned himself as the Statesman, with the understanding of the experiences of America to bring about the best solutions. And, he did! He reminded the audience, even in his closing statement, that the election was 15 months away, but there are things that people can do right now to help our country. And, as the Statesman, not the politician, he was able to return fire to Chris Wallace (who asked some of the questions that night) and was able to give a more honest focus, without couching his words. He was strong, funny and connected with an audience who two hours prior had written him off. There can be no question that he won last night. Does that translate into Straw Poll results? Not sure.
2 – Sen. Rick Santorum – I’m as surprised as anyone on this front. I had spoken at length on Wednesday and Thursday that Santorum and Gov. Tim Pawlenty need to show up in this debate. Santorum did, in a most fascinating way – as foil to Rep. Ron Paul. After, quite literally, having to beg to be heard in the debate, Santorum started to respond to Rep. Paul’s thoughts and theories with a competing view point. The back and forth between Santorum and Paul was great for America, and the closest thing to a real debate I have ever seen in presidential politics. Both men advocating for individual liberty, and that laws come from G-d, not man – and two different views of how that plays out. Santorum bests Paul on just good humor – he came across better on stage.
3 – Rep. Ron Paul – For me, he seemed rather focused. He was able to pivot back to the concept of individual liberty, and then expand out to economic realities, finishing with how his foreign policy (i.e., end the wars, bring home the troops) will save the people of the United States billions of dollars. His engaged, yet respectful, countering of Sen. Rick Santorum’s thoughts on America, and the best way forward, will be the longest running theme from this debate. Of most interest, he spoke of Cuba and free trade. I interviewed Rep. Paul earlier that day (which received many comments on YouTube, some rather negative – calling it an “ambush interview” and painting me a neo-con) and asked him about his thoughts on isolationism and the Constitution. He responded by stating his belief in free trade, and how we should be engaged in trade with Cuba! Perhaps I planted the seed?
4 – Gov. Mitt Romney – He didn’t win, he didn’t lose. He comes out unscathed. That’s a good victory, and a big lesson for the rest of the field who let the pitch (the Mitt) go by.
5 – Gov. Tim Pawlenty – The editor and publisher of TheIowaRepublican.com, Craig Robinson, had mentioned on PJTV that Pawlenty had to show some fight. He did. He did it well. In the opening conversation with Rep. Michele Bachmann, he was direct, forthright, honest, sincere, and most importantly, forceful without being rude. In the second go-round with Bachmann, it got to be uncomfortable. As I wrote on PJM last night, it went from “…wow to whoa.” Pawlenty already had Bachmann reeling from the first round. He should have taken his focus off of her, and put it back on Obama with much more speed. And, if not Obama, then Romney. Pawlenty got the second chance to discuss “ObamneyCare.” He did so, and pretty well, but it all may be academic at this point. As opposed to many others in the race, the Iowa Straw Poll may determine his immediate political fate.
6 – Rep. Michele Bachmann – Would you look at that…more hate mail for me! The end result of Bachmann’s performance is that she allowed herself to be taken down by a lesser contender by engaging her. Bachmann has massive Tea Party support, and a growing fan base. She was sure to be complimentary of former Gov. Sarah Palin, whose supporters may flock to Bachmann if Palin is not in the race. I don’t think her performance will hurt her at the Straw Poll, but she did not come across as well as she did last time on CNN. Pawlenty got to her, and it showed. Luckily, she has the time, the money and the platform to recover.
7 – Herman Cain – I like Herman Cain, but he just doesn’t connect on stage. He had a great line about America taking a joke when discussing the border, but the rest of his answers through the majority of the debate seemed unformed. Not the intent of his answers, but the answers themselves. When Cain speaks of foreign policy, it comes across that he is completely out of his element. It was refreshing to hear him talk about what he is learning, and that he gathering the information to be the best president possible. That kind of honesty goes a long way, but it might not be the best idea to be the president who has to learn on the job (like Hillary Clinton warned!) Off stage, on camera, in person, Cain is just fantastic. Incredibly likable and engaging. On the stage, he fades, and I don’t think there is enough time for Cain to correct that.
8 – Amb. John Huntsman – Oh, look. There’s Ambassador John Huntsman. Wow…he really got great seats. Oh, look. He’s going to answer a question..good thing he brought his can opener.
What do you think? Please give your thoughts in the comments.