First Blood in Ames

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.