The CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida ended with a whimper, but otherwise will surely go down as the most lively and impassioned debate thus far. With more questions from the regular Americans of the tea party movement, candidates were given the opportunity to directly address the concerns of average Americans, and that fact alone seemed energizing.
As predicted, CNN did its best to present the debate as the “Rick Perry Show w/Mitt Romney and special guests”. Blitzer directed or redirected nearly every question to Perry and gave Romney ample time to counter. Perry came out strong right away. The first question regarding social security required Perry to defend his Ponzi scheme comment. He did so, was unapologetic, and the audience responded with great appreciation. The first half of the debate unequivocally belonged to Perry. Bolstered by an inarguable record in Texas (Romney tried the argument, but failed), the Governor looked confident, easy and the crowd responded very positively. Unfortunately, during the second half, Perry struggled quite a bit. When the Gardasil question was raised, he provided a satisfactory answer and admitted he had made a mistake with that decision. However Perry didn’t seem prepared for the pounding that question would get. As Blitzer posed and then re-posed the question, several candidates took the opportunity to take the fight straight to Perry, and he did not seem prepared for that. The final nail in the coffin came on immigration. He defended his support of the Texas “Dream Act” and the accompanying “states rights” argument to the boos of much of the tea party packed audience. After going a long long way to endear himself to tea party patriots across the country, Perry gave up a lot of ground with that answer. The audience’s displeasure obviously threw Perry off his game, as he began to stammer and stumble through his defense. It hurt him badly, and being at the end of the debate, left the viewer with that subpar image. Perry comes off as a man of great stature and composure, and he has the ‘80’s Friday night soap opera eyebrows to back that up – he surely hasn’t lost the nomination in this one debate, but he didn’t win it either.
Romney looked tired, and has been looking that way for a couple of weeks now. He may not have been properly prepared for the fight this process had turned out to be. He held his own quite well and had several thoughtful and audience-rousing responses, but seemed out of his element in front of the blatantly conservative crowd. He certainly did not score points by suggesting that Perry just got lucky in Texas with jobs creation. His refusal to consider repeal of monstrous bills such as healthcare certainly did nothing to endear him to tea party voters, and his criticism of Obamacare rang quite hollow, considering his own healthcare boondoggle in Massachusetts. That will not be lost on conservative voters. Mitt’s hair also failed to impress tonight. He’ll pay for that.
Rick Santorum was the pleasant surprise of the evening. Although he still received considerable less time than the other candidates, his responses were impassioned and straight forward. He did well to highlight his history of sounding the alarm on Social Security and the debate format played very positively to his everyman appeal. Santorum proved tonight that he is an intelligent, conservative voice in this race, but his lack of aggression threatens to be his downfall. That being said, his performance was good and he cannot be counted out of this race just yet. Also, Santorum obviously received the message regarding his pink tie from the last debate. When you’re struggling to assert yourself as a front runner, vague shades of pink are not exactly the colors that scream “I’m your man!”… or A man, for that matter.
Bachmann was under the most pressure to perform tonight. She is a tea party favorite and has been struggling in the polls since Perry announced his candidacy. After a fairly wooden performance last week, she was expected to come out a little stronger in front of her tea party compatriots. All in all she lived up to the expectations. She seemed infinitely more relaxed and at home in this format. Even her hair seemed to have more bounce than usual. Bachmann was in her element as she explained that Obamacare was raiding Medicare for 500 billion dollars and hammered home all the appropriate tea party points of smaller government and full repeal of Obamacare and financial reform. Her most forced moments came when she chose to take Perry head on, but as he seems to be siphoning off a good bit of her support, she likely had no other choice. A loss for Bachmann in this debate would spell a certain end to her Presidential hopes. She avoided that doom for now, but with every comment about her fights in the House, Bachmann seems only to solidify more and more the very reasons she should remain in Congress and fight for conservative values. She seemed at home tonight, but it may be her true home is in the House.
Huntsman had his eyebrow greased and calibrated and ready to go from the start. He seemed to have studied his Tea Party primer well, and was able to fire off a few conservative sounding responses, but as usual he was short on detail and long on eyebrow. He also had some very awkward attempts at humor, most notably a weird reference to Kurt Cobain. Who was he hoping to tweak with that remark? Even the audience seemed embarrassed for him as he paused for the laughter that never came. Obviously his comedy software program had not been installed correctly. The amount of time CNN devoted to Huntsman tonight did not work to his advantage at all. When the network that originally devised the “tea bagger” slur devotes that much time to a questionable Republican such as Huntsman, it is a clear indicator to conservative voters that this is not who they want as their nominee. The good thing is, Huntsman avoided the “my record in Utah” script; the bad thing is, without his record in Utah, Huntsman is nothing more than an empty suit with a lot of plugs and wires running down the back. He doesn’t come off as “real” and if there’s anything tea party voters are looking for, its authenticity.
Cain did well. The audience was clearly in his corner and his no-nonsense businessman approach was a guaranteed tea party favorite. He wasn’t offered much time, but he used his opportunities wisely to highlight his 9-9-9 plan and his corporate experience. Cain did not seem to advance much in this debate, nor did he lose any ground. It was a solid showing, but surely not the breakout his team must have hoped for considering the forum.
Ron Paul turned in the usual Paul performance. His highlight came when Blitzer posed a question about a 30 year old man who chose not to buy health insurance but then suffered a horrible health crisis: who should pay for that man’s health benefits? Should we let him die? Over the shouts of tea partiers (sure to illicit all kinds of hysterical coverage in the MSM tomorrow), Paul talked about the idea of personal responsibility and taking risks. He reminded Blitzer that in the days before government entitlements, people in crisis turned to churches and community charity for help. He reiterated what every tea partier knows by heart: if the government stopped stepping in to provide every need imaginable, that man would find a way to save his own life. Of course, Ron Paul got all Ron Paul-y on the military and foreign policy and elicited many hearty boos from the audience as he tried to justify extricating the United States from the Middle East. The kooky meter was spiking a lot tonight for Paul. What more can be said? Some call him the Father of the Tea Party, but tonight it looked like the kids were ready to move dad to the old folks home.
Undoubtedly the one candidate who came out on top was Newt Gingrich. This was by far his best performance to date. Having a tenuous relationship with the tea party, Newt faced the challenge of remaining true to his core political style while not alienating viewers with what can sometimes be his condescending tone. He was up to the challenge and had the best, most provocative answers of any candidate on stage. Newt was the only one who stayed focused on Obama and his disastrous policies. Blizter, obviously still carrying a chip on his shoulder from the Clinton years, did his best to pose the bulk of the “gotcha” questions to Newt, but Gingrich slapped every one down with poise, passion and searing intelligence. The crowd was with him the whole way. Newt may not be able to convince a majority of the right that he should be President, but one would be hard pressed to find a single Republican voter who would not jump at the chance to see him in any influential cabinet position, or even as the White House spokesperson. No one in Washington is smarter than Newt Gingrich. No one. He proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt in this debate.
The debate format was an interesting marriage of far left media and the newly influential tea party movement. Perhaps it was the specter of directly addressing the people as opposed to a table of stuffy moderators that allowed the candidates to appear more at ease. Whatever it was, and despite the glitches, this format was the most notable and rousing of the debates so far. CNN could have counted this as one of their most interesting programs to date, but for the last 10 minutes. Perhaps it is just the dynamics of television producing, but the powers that be at CNN could not resist the pointless fluff question. “If you were to win the White House, what would you bring with you?” Newt looked the most fittingly annoyed with the question. No one had anything particularly fetching to say. Bachmann gave the pre-approved tea party answer of her copy of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I sincerely hoped Herman Cain would bring his grill and a few slabs of baby-back ribs, but he said he’d bring a sense of humor instead. Santorum made a cute joke about adding an extra bedroom for his 7 kids (hey, Rick, it’s a mansion!). Ron Paul provided the dowdiest answer, responding he would bring a “bushel basket of common sense” and a book about Austrian economics. Sounds exciting. Romney had a long answer that ended in him returning Churchill’s bust to the Oval Office. I think. It was long answer. Huntsman joked that his wife would kill him for saying he’d like to bring his motorbikes to the White House. It shouldn’t be surprising that Huntsman has a fondness for motorcycles – they share the same parts. Perry earned the wife points of the night by saying all he needed was his lovely wife. But it most likely wasn’t enough to erase his dismal ending to promising start.
Those are the highlights and low-lights. Clear winners were CNN, which probably garnered more views for this one night than their whole year put together; and Newt Gingrich. Santorum gets an honorable mention for finally being able to express his positions and doing it quite well. Holding the line were Bachmann and Cain. Romney and Perry were the clear losers tonight – Romney for being caught out of his element, and Perry for disintegrating in the second half. However, above all, the tea party were the true winners tonight, proving definitively that the influence of this grass roots, American movement extends far beyond mid-term elections. Politicians take note.