No Winners or Losers in Last GOP Presidential Debate Before Iowa Votes

In Sioux City, Iowa, the seven GOP presidential candidates participated in the final debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. While many candidates had a lot riding on this debate, as primary voters, especially those in Iowa, were guaranteed to tune in to size up the candidates for a final time, the debate most likely reminded voters of everything they liked and disliked about the candidates going into the debate. The debate did not change the dynamics of the race, which has Gingrich clinging on to narrow leads in Iowa and nationally.

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich’s past association with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has been a liability in addition to whispers about his temperament and arrogance. He has often made up for those net negatives with his combative defense and embrace of American exceptionalism. Last night, Gingrich was attacked for his defense of “government sponsored enterprises” and could not hide his irritation at Michele Bachmann. Gingrich repeatedly stated that Bachmann just did not have her facts straight on a range of issues and attacks. In doing so, though, he may have reminded some voters why his sneering often rubs them the wrong way.

On the other hand, such voters have overlooked Gingrich’s flaws, politically and personally, because of his emphasis on American exceptionalism, and Gingrich delivered yet again, when he challenged questioner Megyn Kelly on the courts by denouncing judges who he said were often dictatorial from the bench.

“We do not have a judicial dictatorship in this country,” Gingrich said, before saying that some judges were so “radically anti-American that they thought ‘one nation under God'” should not be allowed (Gingrich was referring to a Supreme Court case when those words were at the heart of the dispute).

Gingrich said that he had warned judges that, if “you keep attacking the core base of American exceptionalism, you will find an uprising against you.”

Gingrich said he would call for judges that overreached to be subpoenaed and appellate courts such as the infamous Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be eliminated. The discussion about courts seemed to light a fire under Gingrich and put a new wind in his sails for the second half of the debate. 

Mitt Romney

Romney’s best argument to primary voters is that he is the candidate who is best able to defeat Obama by touting his private sector experience and comparing that to Obama’s lack of experience in the same. Romney spoke convincingly about how his time in the private sector (and his successes and failures) has prepared him to manage the country’s economy. He even did a better than adequate job of attacking Obama for his failures both domestic and foreign, saying that Obama had a “pretty please” foreign policy and did not understand how the economy and the private sector worked. 

Republican voters have been lukewarm, at best, over Romney’s candidacy because they feel he lacks a core set of beliefs and will take any position so long as it is convenient to getting him elected. And while he persuasively said that he has “changed his mind” on the issue of abortion and is firmly pro-life now, he stumbled on where he stood, past and present, on gay rights and marriage. And when Chris Wallace read off a litany of Romney’s past flip-flips on a range of issues, it reinforced his greatest weakness of being a politician devoid of a core. It is perfectly fine to change one’s mind on some issues, but Romney has changed his mind on so many that it has become comical.

Regardless, Romney’s debate performance was reminiscent of his earlier ones. He hit all his marks, and did nothing to compel people to give up supporting him. 

Ron Paul

Just like Gingrich often can’t help himself from getting a jab in to his opponents or pontificating as if he were lecturing students on some theory, Ron Paul just has to scratch his foreign policy itch. Had he not been soft on Iran before the Ames Straw Poll, Paul may have won that contest. Similarly, just as he was gaining momentum in Iowa, Paul again said that “overreacting” to Iran was a greater danger than Iran potentially obtaining a nuclear weapon. While he has surged because of his views on the debt and fiscal issues, his foreign policy views, and, perhaps more importantly, the way he sounds like a “Blame America First” member in espousing his views, have prevented him from having a high ceiling of support. 

Michele Bachmann

Bachmann is at her best when she is on the attack. She attacked Gingrich for taking $1.6 million from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while she was trying to shut them down. She scored points by confronting Ron Paul on his foreign policy approach, but she may be remembered for frustratingly saying that she is a “serious candidate,” in addition to being someone who doesn’t get her facts wrong, in response to Gingrich’s assertion that she was constantly mistaken on numerous lines of attack. 

Bachmann, who once led the polls in Iowa, is hoping that social conservatives flock back to her before Jan. 3, and Bachmann’s commanding debate performance that showed toughness and strength may be enough to put her back into contention in what is going to be a wildly fluid and unpredictable Iowa caucus. 

Rick Santorum

Santorum displayed his solid social conservatism and strengths on foreign policy. He attacked Romney’s record on traditional marriage in Massachusetts and was fluently conservative in how he would deal with Iran. But there was not a breakout moment for a candidate who desperately needs one to catch fire. 

Rick Perry 

Perry most improved his stock out of all the candidates with last night’s debate performance. 

From calling on Eric Holder to resign because of his role in the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal to reminding voters that he is running as a “Washington outsider” who was squarely against an insider culture that makes subtle distinctions between “lobbying and consulting” that average Americans cannot understand, Perry’s performance, for the most part, was commanding. He spoke of how America needed a 21st century version of “the Monroe Doctrine” to protect its backyard in its hemisphere and spoke competently about foreign policy issues.

But it was when he compared himself to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow that Perry won the night. 

“I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses,” Perry said. “There are a lot of folks that said Tebow was not going to be a very good NFL quarterback.”

Perry also said that Texas’s record on job creation was like Tebow’s two national championships.

The comparison will ensure that Perry is discussed after the debate is over, and it is important because it put Perry squarely on the side of Evangelicals and those on the right of center side in the culture wars. These are the voters Perry desperately needs in Iowa to revive his candidacy.

The question for Perry in the coming days will be if all this is too little and too late. 

If Perry can win Iowa and establish himself as the anti-Romney candidate heading into South Carolina and Florida, he may still have a reasonable chance at winning the nomination. 

Jon Huntsman 

Huntsman’s best bet may be for the GOP candidates to destroy each other in the final three weeks before voting starts. Now up to solid double digits in multiple New Hampshire polls, Huntsman emphasized how he would go about fixing the country’s economic and trust deficits by ending the culture of crony capitalism in Washington D.C. and on Wall Street. Again, though, the spotlight was rarely on Huntsman. But in this election cycle in which the more these candidates talk the more they are disliked, not being under the klieg lights may be a blessing in disguise for Huntsman if he can continue his upward trend in New Hampshire, the state that will determine the fate of his candidacy.