Wednesday night was the real kickoff to the presidential primary season, at least for normal Americans who didn’t really care about the Ames straw poll. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman took the stage in what may as well be a church for Republicans: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was participating in a fantasy football draft while this debate was going on. I will not, thus, attempt a full scale analysis, but rather will elaborate on some themes that stuck out to me.
Mitt Romney is the class of this GOP field: The former Massachusetts governor has played the role of “inevitable winner” from day one. Some questioned the validity of that strategy, especially given Rick Perry’s recent surge to the top of the polls. Seems like Team Romney knows what they’re doing. Their candidate had better, more informed answers to questions than anyone else. He was unphased when asked tough questions, even around the state sponsored healthcare plan he designed for Massachusetts. More than everyone else, Romney was comfortable going off script. He was ruthlessly logical. Any GOP candidate needs to hold their own against a very intelligent incumbent president; right now, Romney seems to be the only person in the field (save Gary Johnson) who qualifies.
Rick Perry cannot stand toe to toe with Romney: This is not to say Perry can’t win the nomination. Rather, Perry was, and will continue to be, eviscerated by Romney whenever talking points are shelved and facts are front and center. Properly moderated debates such as Wednesday’s tend to do this. Perry is probably more genuine in his beliefs than the man who created state run healthcare and is now running against it. Romney’s policy beliefs might indeed be the result of voter focus groups rather than his own articulation. But he knows them inside and out. Perry fails miserably in this regard; I don’t think any amount of prep work will allow him to break even in a debate against Mitt.
Ron Paul is the wrong standard bearer for libertarians: Ron Paul has had a tremendous career in Congress. He’s basically invented modern libertarianism, and he is by far the most ideologically consistent of any candidate. But let’s be honest: his proposals are far more radical than most Americans would consider, to the point where he’s preemptively tuning out millions of folks from even considering libertarian prescriptions. Additionally, he loves to ramble, and doesn’t often bother to justify any of his assertions with facts. Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who didn’t even earn an invite to the debate, would do far better for this movement. It’s a shame no one knows who he is.
Newt Gingrich isn’t actually trying to win: With the exception of a few issues near and dear to social conservatives’ hearts, Gingrich didn’t really try to correlate his answers with the questions he was asked. When prodded about Romney’s previous support of the individual mandate, he talked about a liberal media conspiracy to fracture the Republican party. Other times, he simply talked about what a failure President Obama has been. He didn’t stake out many policy positions, refused to go after any candidate, and didn’t attempt to differentiate himself. This is a man who thinks he is the Whip of the GOP presidential field, not someone trying to, you know, win.
Jon Huntsman still can’t find his niche: The “nice guy/above the fray” ploy seems to be done; primary voters really don’t care about civility, and the Republican base doesn’t think now is the time to play nice with Obama anyways. But what is Huntsman’s next strategy? He’s not the free market champion of the class. He’s certainly not going for the social conservative vote. He’s not the qualified “jobs” guy, either…he sounded lost when taking on Perry and Romney in that arena. And if he thinks he can play the China card anymore and win this race on foreign policy, he’s delusional.
Overall, I’d give the GOP a “C-” for this appearance. Between Cain and Paul’s ramblings, Gingrich’s antics, and Perry/Bachman’s general lack of knowledge, Republicans did not do a great job. If the party wants to win the White House (and Senate, for that matter), they need to take more advantage of nationally televised appearances like this. Romney can only carry the field so far, and I think he’s due for a worse beating over “Romneycare” in the future.
Republicans aren’t going to beat Obama in a battle of personalities. They have, however, been handed a gift in the events/issues column, and they need to focus there. I’d like to see these guys spending more time with the textbooks and less time glad-handing; that, however, might be an impossible sell.