Reagan Debate Kicks Off Fall Campaign Season

Eight candidates debated at the Reagan Library on Wednesday in a debate sponsored by POLITICO and NBC. The moderators were liberal, as expected, and the line of questioning, as best as it could, prevented candidates from blistering President Barack Obama, which one has to assume is the candidate of choice of the mainstream media. The debate was significant because it was the first in which Texas Gov. Rick Perry participated and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was not the front-runner. Further, the debate allowed some storylines and distinctions for the upcoming fall campaign to begin to form. Here is how each candidate performed.


1. Mitt Romney

Romney’s faults are known. He passed RomneyCare and has flip-flopped on a host of issues. Because his flaws are known, the question is how many Republican primary voters will overlook those flaws to vote for him. Romney’s best chance of winning the nomination is to convince voters that he can best manage the country’s economy. On Tuesday, he rolled his economic plan. And during the debate, Romney maintained his momentum by highlighting how he would better manage the economy than Obama by stating Obama was just in over his head while deflecting criticism that came his way. For instance, when Perry said Romney’s jobs record was worse than that of Michael Dukakis, Romney immediately said that Massachusetts did not have the natural resources and the Republican dominated legislature that Texas had, and Romney added that Perry certainly could not take credit for that advantageous climate. Further, Romney did not go down the path that Perry did when Perry continued to call social security a “ponzi scheme,” and, in so doing, may have positined himself to do well in Florida, which may be essential if Perry comes out of South Carolina with a full potential head of steam. Romney was also poised and less robotic in his past debates, and the improvement he has shown as a candidate translated to his debate performance. Romney did not look like the complacent front-runner, and Perry can take credit for that for his entry into the race and climb to the top of the polls has made Romney into a better candidate.  

2. Rick Perry 

Perry was besieged by the moderators that criticized almost every aspect of Texas from the state’s low graduation rate to the high number of people without health insurance in the state. There were those who also doubted Perry’s debate skills coming into the debate. This format favored Perry, and Perry spent a considerable amount of time focusing on his bread and butter issue, which is creating jobs. He presented himself as a candidate who would “get America workin’ again” and make America’s business climate as friendly as Texas. 

He was uneven at times, and has not yet been fully interrogated on his passing the Texas version of the DREAM Act and signing an executive order to vaccinate young girls with the HPV vaccine. Further, by calling social security a “ponzi scheme,” Perry may have taken up the Goldwater mantle in that Republican voters may not think he may be a strong general election candidate. Goldwater, though, won the primary, and as the nation’s fiscal crisis becomes more dire, Perry’s words may not seem so extreme. At least that is what Team Perry is hoping for. In the meantime, Perry did nothing to hurt himself in the crucial early primary state of South Carolina, a state Perry, it seems like, must win. 

Conditional Winners

These candidates would have been winners if the circumstances were different. 

1. Jon Huntsman

Huntsman did an effective job of elbowing his way into the debate, pointing out that he had a better jobs creation record when he governed Utah than Perry or Romney. He framed himself as the candidate who can best take on Obama in the general election. 

“Gov. Huntsman contrasted his record in Utah — historic tax reform, free-market healthcare reform, and number one in job creation — with those of his opponents,” Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said in a statement. “In doing so, he distinguished himself as the only candidate with a record of creating jobs, in business and as governor; the only candidate with foreign policy expertise, who is qualified to represent America’s strength and ideals on the global stage; and the candidate with crossover appeal who can defeat President Obama.”

The question is will voters look past the mainstream media’s early embrace of his candidacy and look at his conservative record of reform and problem solving in Utah to give his campaign a boost, particularly in the critical first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. 

Huntsman presented himself as a candidate who can make America’s core strong again and get America “back in the game.” To do that, he must get back into the 2012 game. 

2. Newt Gingrich

Gingrich called for Federal Reserve Chariman Ben Bernanke to be fired. He excoriated the moderators for trying to divide Republicans. He said the questioners from the last debate should have asked candidates how the federal government could get more revenues and presented his plan for doing so without raising taxes. Gingrich showed a command of the way government works and was the intellectual force that he always is. 

He played the elder statesman in addition to acting like the general with the plan to beat Obama. He called for English to be the country’s official language to thunderous applause. 

He makes the GOP debates better, but can his campaign get itself on sound fiscal footing to move forward and will voters give him and his campaign a fresh look and start?

3. Herman Cain

“If 10 percent is good enough for God, then 9 percent is good enough for government,” Cain said in explaining his “9-9-9” plan in what was the line of the night. .

Cain’s plan would establish a 9 percent tax on personal income, a 9 percent tax on corporate income and a 9 percent tax on sales.

Cain said that the “the government needs to get out of the business of trying to figure out who gets a tax break here, who gets a tax break there,” and that his plan would level “the playing field for all businesses.”

Cain added that “the government won’t be in the business of trying to determine who’s going to be able to make money and pay no taxes.”

Cain has the most private sector experience of any candidate and he has no rivals that can match his success in the private sector, particularly in turing around companies and creating actual jobs. As his campaign noted, Cain received less than six minutes of speaking time so his background, private sector experience, and proposals to fix the economy could not be more thoroughly explained. 

Candidates Who Did Not Lose

1. Ron Paul

Paul said that Perry was not a conservative and he could be a gadfly going forward for Perry. According to Paul, the more one examines Perry’s record, the less conservative he is.

Paul also defended his liberty-based approach to government against accusations that his world view was harsh. 

His libertarian philosophy, particularly when it is against the overrach of the agencies such as the Transportation Security Agency, has caught on this cycle but Paul seems incapable, at this time, to expand his reach in the Republican party beyond his core group of supporters. 

2. Michele Bachmann

Bachmann gave polished and sound answers, but she often was not heard from for long stretches of time. She vowed to repeal ObamaCare by electing 13 new GOP senators and took stances on immigration that the conservative base would like. She did not do anything, though, to gain momentum going forward. She’s still stuck in neutral. 

3. Rick Santorum

He gave polished answers on questions ranging from immigration to reviving the nation’s industrial areas. Beacuse the moderators were liberal, he was not given much time to discuss the social issues that are dear to him. 

Other Winners

1. Barack Obama

The moderators ensured Obama took few shots to the body. Obama left this debate as unscathed as he could possibly be. 

2. Sarah Palin

If Palin intends on entering the race, she won this debate. Every candidate has now shown their cards and revealed parts of their strategy. This allows Palin to come in last after surveying the field. If she jumps in, all of the candidates will have damaged the other candidates, and she will have the added benefit of being more prepared and able to anticipate the various lines of defenses these candidates will use to defend their weaknesses. Palin can also come up with unique policy solutions that allows her to be the last candidate standing.