Time again for another Republican debate recap… Getting tired of these things yet? I know I am. That’s why I passed on writing about the last greatest debate of the Republican primary season they held Monday. As most of you probably know, I’m not as old (or as wise) or as experienced as most in the business of political punditry, so I haven’t gone through the process of following presidential primary campaigns this closely for all that long; but never in my life have I seen a race where debates played such an important role. The very fact that Newt Gingrich is still in this race – and Rick Perry is not – is all the evidence one could need of that simple fact. These things are important; sooo…. here we are.
That said, I can’t help but wonder if we’re setting ourselves up for a grand disappointment by “winnowing” our field in such a fashion. Just think about it. We are choosing our candidate, at least in part, based upon debate performance(s)… with absolutely no guarantee that President Obama will even agree to debate the eventual nominee. How’s that a winning hand?
Either way, this is what we’re doing this time around at least for now. They matter… until they don’t.
CNN hosted the “Southern Republican Presidential Debate” from Charleston, South Carolina Thursday night and John King played the role of token moderator for the contest. I’m sure headlines Friday morning will tell the story of heated exchanges and quick jabbing candidates sparring with one another over the issues; but the only broad-sweeping conclusion I drew from the event was how drastically different each of our remaining candidates are from one another.
On to the scoring… Since there are only four candidates left in race, we’re going to dumb it down a bit this time. Scores range (1-10) with 10 being the highest score – just in case you needed a cheat-sheet.
The former Speaker of the House gets top billing here simply because I happened to be re-watching the opening back-and-forth between he and Mr. King. As I said here, I think Newt scored big for his response to the smear campaign ABC and his ex-wife unveiled ahead of the South Carolina primary and believe he will emerge as a stronger candidate for having gone through it. As some have pointed out, while it is an “old issue” to most, it is still very much a “new issue” to some. There are many potential voters who are new to following presidential campaigns and many more who were simply too young to have followed Gingrich’s fall from grace that closely. The fact that it resurfaced in such a fashion in a setting and at a time such as this lets the matter be addressed, responded to, and put in the rear view more expeditiously than Gingrich could have probably ever dreamed of.
Beyond that, I think it was another solid performance for Speaker Gingrich. The guy’s as good at these things as anyone I’ve ever witnessed and I think that strength will certainly earn him more than his share of votes among those who believe President Obama’s oratory talents are a real and genuine threat to the ultimate nominee in the general election contest. Is it enough? Hard to tell. But I do believe he’s betting the farm on it – evinced by the fact that he once again used his closing remarks to remind potential voters that a Gingrich – Obama debate would be one for the ages and one that President Obama would not be looking forward to.
I thought Gingrich improved – but still struggled – with his defense of previous comments regarding illegal immigration. He attempted to more thoroughly explain his position that there must be an in-between status for people that have been here for “25 years” and put down roots in their local communities, but I still fail to see how that scores him any points with red meat right-wingers. Practicality and pragmatism on that issue will most certainly not bring any undecideds into his camp in a Republican primary… in South Carolina. Does it make him more viable in a general election or in Florida? Perhaps, but I’m still betting he wished that subject would have taken the night off in South Carolina. He may have earned a few points back saying he would order the Justice Department “Day One” to immediately drop all suits against states who have attempted to address illegal immigration within their borders. Too little too late? Maybe.
One of the best moments of the night for Newt came when he took the fight directly to the current resident of the White House and offered up the red meat hardcore right-wingers live for. He said it was “imperative that we defeat Barack Obama” calling him the “most dangerous president of our lifetime.” He went on to say that the level of “radicalism” that would accompany a second term for Obama would be “truly frightening.” He said that to truly return our country to its proper course, we need a “team victory” in the Senate and the House and that said victory must also be a “principled” one.
I’m actually glad Newt acknowledged that reality in his remarks. While a victory in the presidential election would be great, choosing a candidate that can win – but not motivate the base – may be detrimental to the cause of securing both Houses; and from where I sit, that’s every bit as important as claiming the White House. I think if there is an argument to be made for Newt Gingrich as our Party’s nominee, it is that he (more than any of the other candidates in this field) can motivate the base and get out the vote. There may be some highs and lows, but the highs would be extremely high and the lows may endear him even further to the base.
Newt gets an (8). It wasn’t his best debate; but considering it was set up (by ABC and CNN) to potentially be his worst, I think he did modestly well.
I went into this debate with the intention of giving Congressman Paul one last chance to win me over. I’ve been rather critical of his campaign on many an occasion throughout this race and I figured I owed it to myself, Congressman Paul, readers of this site, and Paul supporters generally to listen with an open mind. With foreign policy off the table in the final debate before the South Carolina primary, one might think it was the perfect time for me to give Paul another shot. Unfortunately, I’m still not buying it.
If you want in-depth analysis of Paul’s performance Thursday night, you’re probably going to have to head some place else. Even with an open mind, Paul’s message is still absolutely lost on me. I “like” him. I respect his steadfast commitment to his ideology. I just don’t see the next Republican nominee or President of the United States when I look at him. Ideologically, he and I are cut from two very different pieces of cloth, but it’s not even about that. There is just no part of me that could ever feel comfortable with him as my Commander-in-Chief.
Just to be clear, I’m not trying to be critical of Congressman Paul here. I’m simply stating my opinion of his candidacy and his performance in this debate. I’m sure there are some of you that know exactly where he’s coming from and precisely what he’s talking about. I’m just not willing to throw my support behind a candidate that seems to be incapable of conveying those things to someone like me – that follows these things as closely as I do. Politics – and leadership generally – is not just about having the best ideas or visions. It’s about getting people to follow when you say let’s go.
I know Paul supporters will scream for an explanation and be angry that I haven’t analyzed specifics of his debate performance here while saying I was trying to be open minded, so here’s the “specifics.” If you want to see where I “like” Ron Paul even where he and I may disagree, see the portion of the debate where he shared his position on Abortion. I thought he was articulate and to the point. I thought he clearly made his case for an alternative to the traditional conservative approach to Right to Life issues and did so in a fashion that probably made a few undecided voters sit up and think. If you want to see where Ron Paul loses me, just dial up any other portion of last night’s debate.
Congressman Paul gets two scores. A (5) from me for a performance on par with what I have come to expect; and a (10) for the Congressman Paul supporters who undoubtedly saw a (10) when I was left scratching my head.
A sub par performance for the presumptive front-runner by my calculations. He once again looked awkward when asked about his bleeping tax returns and even appeared unprepared for King to reference his father in the line of questioning. He scores a (6.5) for finishing strong, but his slow and steady wins the race approach may be legitimately tested for the first time in this primary campaign.
I thought the Governor handled the opening Gingrich ex-wife sideshow quite well by encouraging King to get to the real issues of the campaign. There was absolutely no need to pile on the Former Speaker at that point as people either know it or they don’t and they’ll either “vote it” or they won’t.
Romney’s best moment of the night came in his closing remarks when he said the Founders took “careful thought” to articulate that our Creator endowed us with certain unalienable rights and saying that “by virtue of the pursuit of happiness, people came here…” and that the president is “changing that.” He went on to say that President Obama is changing our great country from a “merit or an opportunity society” into an “entitlement society.” I’m certain that line scored points across the board with potential voters in South Carolina and elsewhere.
It’s been said that Romney’s a “doubles hitter” rather than a guy that swings for the fences. While I certainly agree with that comparison, there were very few doubles for Romney Thursday night. He’s going to have to rely upon an already solid batting average to keep him hitting at the top of the lineup.
Senator Santorum has mastered the talent of winning by finishing second but still managing to “win the night.” I think he probably scored just below Speaker Gingrich with a (7.5), but still managed to walk away victorious because he landed shots across on each of his rivals. No place was this demonstrated more clearly than when the discussion turned to Abortion.
He sparred with Congressman Paul, reminded voters that Romney has a “checkered past” on the issue, and made the case that Gingrich puts “social issues” in the back seat on the road to electoral success. I think he effectively made the case that he is the most socially conservative candidate in the field and the only candidate with a record to support his Pro-Life position. I’m not a single issue voter, but many are. Thursday night, Santorum made an outstanding closing argument that he is the man to represent those people.
Beyond that, I think the highlight of the night came when Santorum went right at Speaker Gingrich – the candidate he is going to have to outpace if he wants to stay in the race as the Romney-alternative. Playing to concerns that Gingrich may be a loose cannon of sorts, Santorum attempted to make the argument that he was the “safe choice’ for Republicans looking to avoid October (or February, March, and April) surprises. “Grandiosity has never been a problem for Speaker Gingrich… I’m steady; I’m solid; and I’m going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign.” I think we all know the MSM will have something to say about that, but if you’re into playing it safe, Santorum may be your guy – that is if you’ve already passed on Mr. Safe himself in Romney.
Santorum closed strong by reminding viewers of his general theme of the evening – that he was the “conviction conservative” capable of clearing contrasting Barack Obama on the “important issues of the day” and that he was the candidate with a track record to back it up. He then closed by calling upon South Carolina voters to once again choose the conservative candidate over the moderate like they once did on the unproven commodity that was Ronald Reagan. Who doesn’t like a Reagan reference?
The highlights of the night as compiled by CNN….