Most people in middle America probably did not watch the debate in New Hampshire on Monday, as seven official (with MIchele Bachman announcing during the debate that she had formally filed papers for her candidacy) presidential hopefuls debating. And, to be honest, the majority of voters do not watch the debates while immersed on twitter or simultaneously fact checking candidates on the nuances on various policy positions. This early on, the debates serve more to give the average viewer a general, gut impression of the candidates. With that in mind, here are some general impressions.
1. Mitt Romney:
Romney entered the debate leading in almost all major polls (Sarah Palin led in a Reuters/Ipsos poll) though a recent USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that Palin’s potential supporters are less likely to candidate shop than Romney’s supporters. With that said, with his considerable resources and organizational strength, Romney is still best positioned to be the last person standing at the end of the primary process.
As the clear frontrunner, Romney won because none of the candidates even attempted a knock out blow. He said how he looked forward to debating President Obama on the economy, he dodged questions he needed to dodge and seemed like a general election candidate, especially answering questions regarding people of different faiths.
His answers were polished, poised and crisp, particularly when it came to strong suit — the economy. Further, he avoided the type of gaffes that hamstrung his last attempt at the nomination in 2008.
He won over the audience by telling them that the Boston Bruins were leading the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 (though how he got the score will be interesting to find out), and it was a moment that could allow him to resonate with voters who may not be too warm on a Romney candidacy.
2. Michele Bachmann:
The bar was set so low for Michele Bachmann, who messed up her Concords and flubbed her last attempt at introducing herself to voters and the mainstream media in Iowa, that her ability to speak complete sentences would have been a win. She did much more.
First, she smartly announced that she was an official candidate for President during the debate to ensure she would be in the headlines if her performance was disastrous.
It was not.
Bachmann, who has hired advisers who are well-versed in debate prep, introduced her compelling biography (5 kids and 23 foster children) and gave poised answers on foreign policy (opposing Obama on Libya) and domestic issues. She repeatedly cited the fact that she was the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus. Obviously, Bachmann is trying to be the so-called “Teavangelical” candidate that combines Tea Partiers and Evangelical voters to catapault to the top in the early primary states.
She has a long road to go to become truly viable, but because she did not fall flat on her face during her maiden debate, she can be considered a winner.
3. Newt Gingrich
Gingrich is also a winner because he did not completely implode. This debate could have been ugly, and it wasn’t. After many of his key, spotlight-grabbing aides made headlines by dramatically resigning from his campaign last week and making sure their friends in the mainstream media knew about every detail leading up to their resignations, the embattled former Speaker of the House’s campaign was deemed to be on life support by the mainstream media.
And though he again flubbed his answer to his initial opposition of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, which he compared to “right-wing social engineering,” Gingrich was sharp in responses to questions ranging from economic policy and immigration. He proved those who said Gingrich would be a force at debates to be right. It’ll be interesting to see what he does going forward, but he did not come off or look like a defeated candidate.
His chances of being nominated may be slim, but rumors of his complete demise and implosion may have been exaggerated.
1`. Tim Pawlenty:
Yesterday on Fox News Sunday,. Pawlenty talked about “ObamneyCare,” and directly linked ObamaCare to RomneyCare, on which ObamaCare was based. During the debate, Pawlenty seemed to walk back his formulation, which puzzled many as to why he did not own a phrase he championed just twenty four hours ago.
In backing away from “ObamneyCare,” Pawlenty seemed weak, feeble, and like a typical politician. He did his “plain vanilla, nice guy” image that he is being branded with no favors. Further, he seemed like a lawyer-like politician in a cycle where straight talk is going to be valued, especially if one is a candidate whose personality does not generate tons of excitement.
Pawlenty has called for an aspirational 5% rate of growth. He has said that if government services can be Googled, the federal government should get out of subsidizing them. He has gone to Iowa, Florida, and Wall Street and told voters their things they may not like to hear regarding subsidies (phase them out), social security, and bailouts.
Yet, none of his bold policies will cut through if he comes off as a politician unsure of himself. If he is afraid to distinguish himself from Mitt Romney, why would primary voters trust him to do the same with Obama?
Again, Pawlenty brought this problem on himself by talking about “ObamneyCare.” The message is simple: if you’re not going to walk the walk, just don’t talk the talk.
2. Herman Cain:
HIs answers on privatizing social security and wanting loyal Muslims in his potential administration probably did not turn off anyone who will comprise his base of supporters.
With an increase in his poll numbers, though, Cain is rightfully getting increased scrutiny.
His performance tonight probably didn’t do much to raise his potential ceiling. It was not one of his better performances.
Cain has a compelling life story, is anti-establishment, can talk with conviction like he means what he says, and has a history of turning around businesses that have had no business being turned around.
This debate should be a wake up call to Team Cain to find ways for Cain to highlight strengths when he’s having an off night at a debate or the format or questioning does not allow him to shine.
3. Ron Paul:
I thought he introduced himself perfectly by saying he is a defender of the Constitution and fighter for liberty. His fiscal conservatism will allow him to resonate with New Hampshire voters, but he did not do anything in the debate that enabled him to broaden his base of potential supporters.
4. Rick Santorum:
He gives passionate, polished, heartfelt answers to many questions. He said Obama’s economic policies were “oppressing” Americans. His challenge will be convincing voters that he has a shot of being a top-tier contender. His best bet will be to broaden his social conservative base, and though, in recent weeks, he has tried to showcase his fiscally conservative credentials, especially in New Hampshire, he did nothing in this debate to break into a higher tier.
In the weeks ahead, Santorum is going to introduce policy plans to potentially revive American manufacturing. He will need more of those ideas to break into the top-tier.
Those who were not present:
1. Jon Huntsman:
Jon Huntsman made the right tactical decision of not attending this debate. The scattered format of the debate would have been potentially disastrous for a thoughtful, nuanced candidate who may not be the best at giving off quick soundbites or being interrupted before he finishes his thoughts. Huntsman can pick his moment to introduce himself on a grand stage to New Hampshire and a national audience. He was smart not to pick this debate as the venue to do so.
2. Sarah Palin:
Contrary to the inane commentary by the members of the media that Michele Bachmann’s ability to string together coherent sentences would scare Palin into not entering the race, the debate did nothing to dissuade Palin from entering the race. If anything, it allows her to better make the case that she has surveyed the field of candidates and has decided that she must enter the fray.
3. Rick Perry:
There was also nothing in the debate that would make a Perry entry less likely. In fact, the rather bland performances by those on stage will probably make it more likely that Perry will receive more pressure to enter the race, especially later this week during the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. The big question may be if he jumps in the race before Sarah Palin does.
1. CNN, John King, The Format:
The debate’s format was terrible. Candidates were interrupted and questions about American exceptionalism were not asked. A thorough discussion of another of Obama’s failings — foreign policy — was not had either.
Perhaps no debate with so many candidates can be had with a good flow. Maybe an enterprising organization can dare to break up candidates into four candidate groups for 30 minute segments and have the whole group on stage for the last hour.
The larger question, though, is why Republicans partner with organizations like CNN for primary debates. It would be one thing if CNN televised a debate moderated by conservative questioners or sponsored by conservative organizations, but to give control over a primary debate to an organization who clearly has a center-left slant seems outdated. The debate seemed like it was intended to introduce the Republican candidates to liberal voters instead of to conservatives and Republicans. The local reporters were mostly used as presenters to introduce questions from audience members. Instead, the local reporters should have been used to press candidates on issues concerning New Hampshire, and they should have had the back and forth discussions with candidates.
Further, perhaps these early debates would be better if local reporters were allowed to moderate.
In sports, it is often said that the best referees are those that go unnoticed. A similar rule should apply to debate moderators. Unfortunately, John King, as moderator, stuck out like a sore thumb during the New Hampshire debate, which means he didn’t do as good of a job as he could have.