So who won the GOP debate in Ames, IA last night? With a mostly subdued panel-and moderator questions that ranged from contentious to downright bizarre - the more pertinent question seems to be “Who lost?”
The most obvious losers were Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon “My Record in Utah” Huntsman. Santorum and Pawlenty both carried the air of men who understood this debate was probably their last chance to distinguish themselves to voters and the media. The two candidates came out strong, highlighting their records with solid, direct responses. One of Pawlenty’s big mistakes of the night came when Chris Wallace offered him a “do-over” for his previous failure to stick it to Romney regarding Massachusetts “Obamneycare” during the first debate. Even with the opportunity handed to him, Pawlenty could barely muster a direct jab at Romney and didn’t even use all his allotted time to respond. And then there was his other big mistake – when he finally did summon a little pluck and decide to take on another candidate, he chose Michele Bachmann – the only woman on the stage. Bachmann stood her ground, and Pawlenty made some salient points at her expense, but it didn’t seem like a wise strategy to let the first person he directly and forcefully engages be the only woman in the field. Not good optics, as they say.
Santorum lost the debate because…well…he’s Rick Santorum – strong conservative, affable guy, but completely unmemorable. His cause was not aided in any way by the moderators, who went as long as thirty minutes without directing a single question or comment toward Santorum. As the night wore on it was obvious Santorum was frustrated with his screen time, but he was unable assert himself enough to demand more time. He was just too…nice.
Jon Huntsman may have lost last night’s debate 2 months ago when he first announced his candidacy and many in the mainstream media picked him as a good opponent for Obama right away. An endorsement from Jeb Bush didn’t help much either. Has Huntsman never heard of Bush Fatigue?
And then there was Newt – no doubt the smartest guy in the room. With his direct, thoughtful answers he ran circles around his competition. However, Newt’s fatal flaw is his total confidence in his intelligence and stature. Clearly irritated, Gingrich slapped away a question regarding the mass defection of his original campaign team. The crowd seemed to enjoy Newt’s boldness at first, but ultimately his “cranky Uncle Newt at family Thanksgiving dinner” routine proved to be too much. Newt didn’t lose, but he didn’t win anything either.
Herman Cain was fine. He was given a moment to clarify his remarks about banning mosques and Sharia law. His answers were not eloquent, but adequate. He knows a lot about business and running a business and how businesses run and companies and such. Cainiacs were no doubt pleased with his performance over all.
Ron Paul was Ron Paul. He had his Ron Paul comb-over and wore his Ron Paul suit and read from his Ron Paul script. He hit all his Ron Paul talking points. The Ron Paul fans screamed at every Ron Paulism that came out of Ron Paul’s mouth. Ron Paul probably raised a lot of money last night.
Michele Bachmann held her own but seemed somewhat subdued. One wonders if her campaign advisors have been coaching her to avoid the “screeching woman” syndrome so many female candidates are accused of falling into. It was a pretty unremarkable night for Mrs. Bachmann until Byron York asked what was probably the most ridiculous, most bizarre question of the evening. Without a hint of embarrassment, York asked Bachmann if, being a Bible-believing Christian, she would follow the commandment from 1Peter and submit to her husband even in the White House. Bachmann seemed as stunned as the crowd for a brief second, then fired off a very sweet response about loving her husband and understanding that the verse is about mutual respect. If Fox News were one of the players on stage last night, Byron York would have been the guy that lost the game for them. It was an awful, silly question, which Bachmann handled with ease. If she had a bright spot last night, that was it.
That leaves us with Romney, and Romney’s hair, which has its very own campaign team, don’t you know? Romney and his hair were the clear winners last night, but perhaps more for what didn’t happen than what did happen. Romney’s hair let Mitt do all the talking, and he said all the right things. Obviously, Mitt has been looking at the polls and seeing that people are afraid he’s too soft to take it to Obama when the time comes. But while he was purposeful and calculated in his remarks, Romney wasn’t engaging. He was wide open to attacks on his governing record and flip-flopping but no opponents seemed up to the task. It seemed inevitable that someone other than the moderator would make hay out of his disappearance during the debt ceiling battle, but no one took it up. The result was a missed opportunity by at least 3 or 4 candidates to take out their competition. Without challenges, a mediocre performance on Mitt’s part looked strong.
Last night’s debate was rather weak. The field seemed unsure of how hard to attack and how much to preen. The moderators offered weak questions and topics. At times the most exciting thing about the debate was the audience. They, at least, seemed engaged and excited. It’s still early, but these candidates seem to need a bit more fire under them. With Rick Perry now in the mix and Sarah Palin lurking around the edges in her tour bus that surely comes equipped with its own ‘Jaws’ theme music, it’s going to be a tighter race than ever.