Scoring the GOP Debate at the Reagan Library

In a season of high expectations and perhaps less than stellar delivery, the Republican presidential debate of September 7, 2011, offered the novelty of having newly anointed frontrunner Rick Perry in attendance. Even that tempting tidbit had been in doubt up until the final 24 hours while fires raged in the Texas governor’s home state.

The biggest question may not have been what the two “top dogs” might say, or what those trailing might do to get ahead, but how the moderators would handle it. That answer came quickly when Brian Williams turned the first two questions -- directed to Rick Perry and Mitt Romney -- into six or seven additions before anyone else got a chance to speak. Each query was an accusation. First, Perry was hammered about the number of new jobs in Texas which were minimum wage. Romney got the next dip at the fountain, asking why his state was 47th in job creation.

These questions were clearly fair game, but the phrasing and tone of the moderator made them seem far more akin to a scene from the Spanish Inquisition. Honestly, by the end of the evening I had lost track of the number of questions which were far less solicitations of opinion and policy than accusations. It was as if Brian Williams and company were looking for the candidates to apologize for being conservatives. As the night progressed, it became clear that the hosts would be severely disappointed.

One of the early highlights of the debate came from the initial question to Herman Cain regarding tax policy. The man is amazing in debate formats and I was reminded once again of the mystery as to why he polls so poorly. His delivery was concise, crisp, and an obvious draw for the crowd. Cain could have been declared the winner of the evening had he been given more time, but he was clearly being treated as a third-tier candidate.

There were a couple of contenders who clearly locked in their status as third-tier runners. Rick Santorum delivered what was essentially a rerun of his past outings. As a tip to his campaign staff, he shouldn’t talk about himself in the third person. It borders on creepy.

Ron Paul drew a fair amount of air time, but struck me as looking a bit more old and tired than he normally does at these events. When he took a shot across the bow from Rick Perry about his 1987 resignation from the Republican Party, he began to stammer and seemed rather absent-minded, for lack of a better term. Congressman Paul most likely neither helped nor hurt himself at this debate.

Newt Gingrich was also on the stage. Unfortunately, that’s about all I have to say about the fact that he showed up.

The person most in need of a breakout performance in the debate -- and thereby the one with the most to lose -- was Michele Bachmann. She managed to duck under even that bar. There were no notable gaffes on her part, but her stock answers and frequent, distracting glares off camera served as more of a sideshow than anything else. This debate delivered a message to me that the Bachmann campaign is effectively over.