Seven of the announced candidates for the Republican presidential nomination met in battle at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College on Monday.
From the beginning, answering a challenge from the debate moderator, CNN’s John King, they all agreed that they had entered the contest because they were concerned about the effects of what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in his opening comment called “The Obama Depression.”
There were no fireworks, despite King’s repeated effort to light them.
The candidates all agreed on most of the big issues, choosing instead to direct their fire at the man they hope to beat in November 2012, Barack Hussein Obama.
Obama, said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, “didn’t create the recession, but he made it worse. He made it longer.”
Indeed, with on-the-books unemployment at 9.1 percent — likely higher in reality — Obama has, to use Romney’s word, “failed.”
Gingrich was far stronger, saying that “for those 14 million Americans who don’t have jobs, this is a depression — now.”
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, when asked if Obama had done “anything right” in terms of the way he has handled the U.S. economy, said, “I can’t think of anything.”
Nonetheless there were no knockout blows. All the candidates seemed to agree, as Romney put it late in the debate, that each of the candidates on the stage would be a better president going forward than Obama has been over the last three years.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who announced during the debate that she had pulled the papers needed to allow her to run for president, took on Obama straight on his signature issue.
“I want to make a promise to everyone watching tonight,” Bachmann said, “I will not rest until I repeal ObamaCare,” citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis that said the reform of the nation’s healthcare financing system would kill 800 thousand U.S. jobs.
Romney, who seemed to get the lion’s share of the time from CNN’s King, made a similar promise.
“If I’m elected president I will repeal ObamaCare,” Romney promised, adding that on his first day in office he would issue waivers to allow all 50 states to opt out of ObamaCare. “States are the right place” for these kinds of issues to be handled, he said.
The questions, which came from a combination of CNN employees, state political reporters and New Hampshire voters, covered a range of issues from jobs, manufacturing, immigration, gay rights, and, finally, foreign policy.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty addressed the issue of trade and the creation of jobs in the U.S. manufacturing sector by arguing, “We’ve got to have fair trade. That’s not what’s going on right now.”
“We need to make the costs and burdens of manufacturing lower,” said Pawlenty, who introduced a pro-growth tax plan last week. “Taxes are too high. The regulations are too heavy. The permitting is too slow,” he said, echoing a basic tenet of the Reagan Republican Party.
Paul, who has a strong following among libertarians, talked about how government policy has chased jobs and capital out of the United States. “We should invite capital back,” he said. He called for allowing corporations to bring profits they have parked overseas to avoid double taxation, and railed against “the Fed continuing to print money.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called for halving the capital gains tax and, to stimulate jobs in the manufacturing sector, for giving manufacturers a five year window in which their capital gains rate would be zero. Later in the debate he also called for phasing out over a five-year period the blenders credit that benefits ethanol producers as well as the federal tariff on ethanol imports.
Asked a pointed question about legislation in New Hampshire that might bring right to work to the state, Pawlenty — a former union member — strongly endorsed it, saying “people should not be forced to join any organization” including labor unions.
Going him one better, Gingrich, showing how his years in Washington would help him formulate policy as president, called on Congress to immediately defund the National Labor Relations Board, “which is seeking to punish” aircraft manufacturer Boeing for trying to open a new plant in South Carolina, a right to work state.
He also endorsed the idea of state right to work laws rather than, as the question asked, creating a national right to work law.
“I’d keep it at the state level,” he said, arguing that competition among the states would be good. “Why would you want to be at (non-right to work state) California’s unemployment level when you can be at (right to work state) Texas’s employment level?”
Gingrich was under a lot of pressure to prove that he was still a viable contender for the nomination following the resignation of most his senior campaign staff. Turning in a gaffe-free performance, he proved — for the moment at least — that he could still please the crowd, as he did with his answer on immigration, saying that the issue was too complex for a narrow yes or no answer.
Seeking to impress, the candidates new to the national scene — Bachmann, Santorum, and businessman Herman Cain — also turned in strong performances likely to please the voters currently supporting them.
The nominal front runners, Romney and Pawlenty, cautiously avoided criticizing one another directly — despite prodding from CNN’s King, who asked Pawlenty several times to repeat and defend his characterization of the Massachusetts health care reforms enacted under Romney’s one term as governor as “Obamneycare.”
Romney, for his part, was just as gracious, acting like a front runner and aiming most of his jabs at Obama, as when he said that, for the first time in U.S. history, America has a president “without a foreign policy.”
While each of the candidates fared well, it was the media moderators who attracted most of the attention. CNN’s King, who kept trying to cut the candidates off when, in his judgment, their answer ran too long, exhibited an annoying tendency to grunt repeatedly, as though he was about to say something.
That grunt was the defining thread of the debate.
Likewise, King failed in his attempt to humanize the candidates by asking a series of what he called “This or That” questions just before and just after the breaks.
“Conan or Leno?” he asked Santorum.
“Elvis or Johnny Cash?” he asked Bachmann.
“Dancing with the Stars or American Idol?” he asked Gingrich.
“Deep dish or thin crust?” he asked Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. And on and on, in moments that were neither funny nor particularly candid.
King also failed when he insisted the candidates engage in a lengthy discussion of same sex marriage and how each of the candidates would deal with the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
These issues, while perhaps important to a small portion of the U.S. electorate as a whole, are not critically important to Republican primary voters — who identify jobs, taxes, spending, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, education, and many other issues as being more important.
Indeed, raising the issue in a GOP debate only makes sense if the objective is to derail a campaign or produce a “Gotcha” moment, hardly the job of a non-partisan, neutral moderator. In fact, it makes about as much sense as asking candidates in a Democratic presidential debate to discuss their position on abortion.
It took most of the debate before we got to foreign policy, with Bachmann and Gingrich pointing out how much in the dark America is as regards what is going on in Libya, calling it a major failure of the Obama administration. Sharper still was Santorum, who said that, under Obama, “our enemies no longer respect us. Our friends no longer trust us.”
The field is still not set. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman pointedly chose not to attend the debate, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry is said by some to be reconsidering his decision to stay out of the race. Nevertheless, the 2012 train is leaving the station — with a solidly conservative group of candidates aboard. The biggest challenge they face is not to defeat each other but to change the narrative coming out of the White House and appearing in much of the big media — that none of them is big enough or strong enough to beat Obama.