The biggest loser of this debate? Frankly, I can’t decide if it’s NBC and the moderators’ terrible line of questioning, or the rest of us for watching it.
The first half hour of the debate simply dealt with the question of “electability,” and was essentially a fistfight between Newt and Mitt. Other question highlights included one about Cuba using the “3AM phone call” phrasing, an English-as-the-official-language moment, an end-of-life doozey referencing Terry Schiavo – now dead for almost a decade – and a question regarding the space program. Major issues like immigration, the economy, and Iran were addressed, albeit insubstantially. My colleague Guy Benson noted via twitter that the word “jobs” wasn’t mentioned until 47 minutes into the debate. Considering that’s the issues virtually all Americans cite as their greatest concern, it seems like that would have taken precedence to living wills. Once again, no question on Fast and Furious, and surprisingly – it is Florida, after all – no real, meaty questions on healthcare reform.
At the start of the debate, Brian Williams announced that the audience was forbidden from applauding – though some errant laughter and clapping escaped when both Mitt and Newt made jokes at Fidel Castro’s expense. The lack of applause changed the dynamic though – it was hard to tell which candidate was the audience favorite. I grade them in descending order as follows:
Mitt Romney: B+. Not great, but better. The faltering frontrunner came out of the gates on the offensive, taking swings at Newt for his record as Speaker and his work at Freddie Mac. He managed to land a solid punch on Newt regarding the fact that Freddie didn’t really hire him as an historian, but as a consultant to the head lobbyist. When asked the extremely predictable tax return question, however, he stumbled and actually stuttered. He noted that they’d be out tomorrow, but quickly switching the topic to his plans to simplify the tax code. The takeaway quote from that answer: “I paid all the taxes that were legally required, and not a dollar more…I’m proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes.” Romney had a very strong response to Williams’ question, “How do we win the war in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban?” He said, “By beating them,” contrasting himself with Obama’s conciliatory approach to foreign policy. However, Romney gave a convoluted answer on an immigration question, talking about “self-deportation” – people leaving the country when they can’t find jobs. Late in the debate, he gave a wane response to a question about Romneycare, trying, again, to differentiate it from Obamacare, but at this point, it’s so rote that few people are really listening with open minds. Overall, a bland performance, but he gets branded “winner” by virtue of the initial hits on Newt.
Newt Gingrich: B. The former Speaker continued his favorite theme, gleefully dismissing questions, calling Brian Williams “inflammatory,” and claiming that everyone else was flat-out wrong. He claimed to be the most electable candidate because he debates well, but this was the first time he did anything less than sit pretty and attack the “elite media.” When asked about his Freddie Mac work, he called it “consulting,” not lobbying, and said that in 2008 he told Congress to vote no on further funding for Freddie. He tried hard to hit Romney over the work he did at Bain, but the attack fell flat, since Bain was in the private, not public sector. By contrast, he seemed taken aback by Romney’s attacks, at least for a moment, and the usually impeccable debater actually blustered. Highlights were ones we’d already seen: he called out Dodd-Frank, and like Romney, he advocated a foreign policy based on the philosophy of peace through strength. He had a strong answer on language as well, noting that respect for what people do at home is not the same as expecting them to adhere to public norms – that English unites the country. He answered a question about the “soul” of conservatism with a long list of his right-wing creds, but like Romney’s healthcare answer, it was recycled. The cracks in the armor showed tonight – Newt might have suffered the most from the lack of applause. Without a screaming audience punctuating his remarks, he sounds flat and condescending. As Guy noted in a post earlier tonight, “being a good debater” is a bad reason to pick Newt.
Rick Santorum: B. He started out the debate sounding optimistic, and shot back Williams’, “You lost in 2006” accusation with, “Everyone lost in 2006.” He, more than any other candidate, remembered to bring the issues back to President Obama and the economy. On a question surrounding Cuba, he was the only candidate to note the threat of terrorists coming through there. He had a great answer on Iran: unlike the other candidates, he called out Obama, saying his policy toward the rogue state was “a colossal failure.” He also had a strong answer on the question of offshore drilling, noting that Florida was most hurt by a poor economy, and that drilling would add sorely needed jobs. Santorum had the only memorable answer on the question about the “soul” of the Republican Party, referencing a host of issues close to the hearts of the GOP – such as healthcare and the bailouts – and delivering a biting criticism of Newt's and Mitt's records on every one. He had about two minutes of speaking time in the first half hour of the debate, and it was easy to forget he was there, but he’s pounding away at the conservative messaging, so you have to give him a hand for that. Will the performance translate to vote, though? Likely not.
Ron Paul: C. Was he even on stage? Barely. Ron Paul likely elicited relief from a number of conservatives out there when he said he wasn’t planning to run third party, but like Santorum, he didn’t get many other words in during the first half hour of the debate. To be fair to the Congressman, he spoke knowledgably on the issue of home foreclosures, and took the Fed to task over interest rates its contribution to the housing collapse. His foreign policy answers were relatively predictable – “Iran might be bluffing on the Straight of Hormuz!” – but he must have raised a number of eyebrows when he claimed to be “anti-isolationism” in an answer on Cuba. He’s always been straightforward about his positions, so he’s not going to give us any new material. He is who he is, like it or not, so you have to admire at least that.
The only game-changer might have been Newt’s performance, but on the bright side for him, there’s another debate on Thursday in which he may redeem himself. Good thing, too. I’m not sure I know where the candidates stand on the issues just yet.