Winner and Losers of Ames Debate

Eight GOP presidential hopefuls debated in Ames, Iowa last night, and here are the winners, losers, and those who debated to a draw. 


1. Newt Gingrich:

Gingrich, in response to the moderator’s admonition to not regurgitate talking points, excoriated the questioner for asking “gotcha” questions and focusing on process and campaign minutiae. Gingrich then gave the debate performance of the night. He railed against the Super Committee created to find spending cuts. He said Congress should be called back in to session now. He urged Americans that the presidential election is 15 months away and they should put pressure on lawmakers to repeal legislation like Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, and ObamaCare that he feels are destroying jobs. He spoke convincingly on issues of Americanism such as making English the official language and reminded everyone why it was conventional wisdom that debates would be Gingrich’s strong suit. His campaign appearances in Iowa in recent weeks have generated buzz and excitement and this debate performance went a long way in potentially reviving his campaign. Many Republicans and supporters may want to see Gingrich in the campaign just so he could be in every debate, which will give him many more opportunities to have more moments in which he could potentially convert into actual votes next winter. 

2. Ron Paul: 

During the first two debates, Paul seemed to be a man trying to moderate some of his image. Not this time. Paul was the old Paul. He spoke convincingly and forcefully on the debt and on fiscal issues. He was professorial at times. On foreign policy, he railed against America’s overseas adventures, was wobbly on Iran (Santorum had to remind him that Iran was a bit different from Iceland). Was there a method to his madness? Perhaps. Paul is in contention to win the Straw Poll on Saturday, which then cannot be dismissed. It could shake up the race, and Paul may have been banking on the old Paul galvanizing the supporters that can push him over the top on Saturday. Would foreign policy moderates and hawks go to the Straw Poll for him? Probably not. If Paul ends up winning the Straw Poll, in large part due to his strategy at the debate of going back to the old, unfiltered (some would say more unhinged) Paul, then the move will have turned out to be even more brilliant, at least in the short term. 

Paul does have another thing going for him. It is true the Republican Party has moved toward him on both domestic and foreign policy. His campaign is much more organized than it was in 2008. Young voters, especially those with a more libertarian bent, are as attracted as ever to his ideas. If Paul wins the Straw Poll, he will have to be talked about as a legitimate contender for the nomination. 

3. Mitt Romney:

Again, he went unscathed. The closest anyone got to landing a blow was when Pawlenty meekly said that “ObamneyCare” was a “fair” description of Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan that ObamaCare was modeled after. As the frontrunner, Romney focused his attacks on Obama and presented his plans on how he would revive the economy. He was on cruise control and came out a winner solely because nobody put a dent in his frontrunner status. 

4. Michele Bachmann:

Bachmann came prepared for Pawlenty’s attacks on her. She said Pawlenty once said the “era of small government is over” and compared Pawlenty to Obama.  She highlighted her opposition to raising the debt ceiling and fighting to preserve the light bulb, an issue deal to conservatives. And while Pawlenty attacked her for her lack of executive experience and her inability to accomplish anything in Congress, Bachmann did nothing to hurt herself going into the Straw Poll, so she has to be declared a winner. She had some few gaffes — like saying Obama got a blank check for $2.4 trillion — but she also answered a question in which she was asked if she would be “submissive” to her husband’s wishes if elected President with poise and class. Republican voters this cycle want someone who is pugnacious, and Bachmann showed plenty of pep going into the Straw Poll. 


1. Tim Pawlenty:

Pawlenty’s campaign is riding on the Ames Straw Poll to revive his campaign. And though he attacked Bachmann in this debate by attacking her opposition to ObamaCare and TARP, noting, “if that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, you’re killing us,” Pawlenty seemed like a candidate with prepared sound bites who was just trying too hard. Later in the debate, when asked again to challenge Romney on “ObamneyCare,” all Pawlenty could say was he felt that criticism was “fair.” Voters want someone assertive. And Pawlenty came off as unsure of who what type of candidate he is or where his campaign is going. Nice guys and their consultants who care what Washington, D.C. elites think of them often do not finish first. Team Pawlenty may be proof positive of that. 

2. Jon Huntsman:

Huntsman seemed uncomfortable and unsure. Perhaps it was symbolic he was in Iowa, for he is not going to compete in the Caucus and his supporters had a debate watching party in New Hampshire, the state which will determine the fate of his campaign. He pieced together material from his stump speeches but did not give viewers a clear reason why he was running. His voice rotated between sounding forceful when repeating rhetoric and trembling when he was substantive. It was weird. On questions ranging from his support of civil unions and immigration, he came away looking like a politician who didn’t directly answer the questions. He cited his conservative record in Utah and described the dour state America is in, which can be core elements of a campaign theme. During one exchange, Huntsman said that he would soon have substantive policy proposals up on his website. The candidate, like his campaign, seems to be a work in progress. It’s early in the game, there’s still time for Huntsman to gain traction, particularly in New Hampshire, but Huntsman needs a thesis statement fast. 


1. Herman Cain:

He highlighted his business background, admitted he has learned a lot about the Palestinian “right of return” and Afghanistan since the last debate. He said Americans “need to learn how to take a joke” in reference to comments he made about how an electric barbed-wire fence was needed in response to when President Obama mocked Republicans on immigration. Cain didn’t hurt himself but he did nothing to vault him back into the conversation. 

2. Rick Santorum:

Santorum was convincing on why the 10th Amendment does not allow states to redefine marriage, among other things and even attacked Rick Perry by name. But he wasn’t asked questions most of the night. When addressed, Santorum delivered convincingly so his performance certainly did not hurt him, but he did nothing to make him stand out enough to generate momentum. 


1. Rick Perry: As first reported by CNN’s Peter Hamby, Perry will formally announce his candidacy Saturday at the RedState Gathering in Charleston, South Carolina. He will be at the front of the pack when he enters the fray, and it was evidenced by Cain calling him a “politician” and Paul referring to him as “status quo.” The blandness of the debate made Perry seem like he would be a technicolor candidate compared to the rest of the field. 

2. Sarah Palin: The same can be said for Sarah Palin, whose bus was rumbling toward the Iowa State Fair, which she will attend today. While other candidates took jabs at Perry, none of the candidates even said anything that could be interpreted as a jab at Palin, again reinforcing the strength of her supporters and the formidable candidate she would be if/when she enters the presidential race. And many signs point to her doing exactly that.