Suzanne Fields
If all politics were truly local, Tim Pawlenty might still be in the race. The former governor of Minnesota made the best offer to Iowans, promising to cook their dinner or mow their lawn. Of course, there was a catch. The winner of the dinner and a freshly clipped lawn had to come up with an example of something specific offered by President Obama to solve the economic mess.

It was a trick question because there are no examples. The political rhetoric this season has focused so far on what's not there from this administration. Despite his failure to attract conservative enthusiasm in Iowa, Pawlenty demonstrated both a serious side and a light touch in a time when polarizing trivia make up the substance, such as it is, of the "debates." Most of the rhetoric is little more than a repetitious leveling of ideas.

Pawlenty, in fact, had a lot more to show than Rep. Michele Bachmann, the winner of the Iowa straw poll. After all, he has actually governed a liberal state as a fiscal conservative, and for two terms. He ran behind a congresswoman from his own state, and that's the way it can work in the oddly structured early rounds of the Republican competition.

We're living with multitasking distractions, and the early televised political debates and straw vote are trivialities. You can arrive late and not miss much. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas figured his day-after rodeo-like presentation would get big attention, and he was right.

Iowa is the first test, but the debate offered little that's fresh. We watched, looking for real substance to take into 2012, but wound up with mere personality revelations. Newt Gingrich had a point when he chided moderator Chris Wallace to put away the "gotcha" questions, which is what the media do best.

"I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games," he said, and the audience cheered.

They loved it because no one was in a mood to listen to yet another explanation of why certain campaign workers defected from one campaign to another, the inside-baseball popcorn and Cracker Jacks on which reporters feed. Newt is an idea man, for better and worse, and he was trying to present his ideas with a big audience at hand. Chances are he won't have it for long.

Michele Bachmann, for all of her admirable passion, is hardly an original thinker. She wins because she runs on conservative social issues, but no one expects her to lead with a challenging intellect. She's a niche candidate who fares well before the arguments get complicated. She gets attention, but for one-note ideas, which she'll never be required to broaden.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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