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Winners (Romney, Bachmann) And Losers In The GOP Debate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The headline for the big GOP debate should read “ROMNEY SOLIDIFIES HIS STATUS AS FRONTRUNNER” but the appropriate sub-head may prove even more significant in the long run: “Bachmann Makes Energetic and Well-Received Debut.” At this point, no one should doubt that the feisty congresswoman from Minnesota will emerge as a major contender—certainly in Iowa (where she was born and raised, and where her evangelical fervor will rally Mike Huckabee’s currently unfocused cadres) and, if she wins there, then most likely in the rest of the country.

Michelle Bachmann greets the audience after the presidential debate at St. Anselms College in Manchester, New Hampshire on June 13, 2011. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton, Reuters / Landov)

For weeks, political analysts have argued that the biggest question about the shape of the Republican race involved identifying the anti-Mitt—the formidable Romney rival who could provide a rallying point for all those who for, whatever reason, found the former Massachusetts governor unacceptable. In recent weeks it looked increasingly likely that Tim Pawlenty would play that role, especially after he unveiled an audacious economic plan that was generally well-received among conservatives. But the New Hampshire debate (carried on CNN) will give rise to feverish speculation that Bachmann may gain momentum as the Mittster’s most fearsome rock-the-establishment challenger.

It’s not that Bachmann delivered a brilliant or masterful or inspiring performance on the stage at St. Anselm College, where she announced her formal candidacy in the midst of the broadcast; it’s just that she so wildly exceeded expectations, especially from all those skeptics who wrote her off long-ago as a whining, unhinged Sarah Palin wannabe, without the moose-hunting exoticism, flirtatious mien or flighty, ditzy voice.

Actually, the main reason that Bachmann helped herself so substantially is that her credibility should destroy the final, forlorn and dwindling chance that the former Alaska governor might still join the race. Tea Party enthusiasts who adore Palin for her fearless, unabashedly conservative positions, girl-next-door sex appeal, impassioned patriotism, and vibrant family life will find a more convincing, less tarnished version of the same virtues in Bachmann. She’s the mother of five (like Palin) and she and her husband raised 23 teenaged foster children (as she told the TV audience three different times), taking kids from troubled inner city backgrounds and guiding them all successfully through high school, with most of them ultimately enrolling in college. Moreover, in the New Hampshire debate Bachmann looked simply smashing—radiant, self-assured, elegantly understated in her tailored, severe black suit with the luminous white blouse, simultaneously formidable and friendly, with her piercing, pale blue eyes igniting for the camera like Bunsen Burners every time she spoke.

One of the common rules for such encounters spells out that the candidate who seems to enjoy himself (or herself) the most, almost always wins the public; that’s why Huckabee, hugely accomplished raconteur and communicator that he is, won every one of last year’s GOP debates and became a major candidate despite lack of money and no prior name recognition. Michele Bachmann, who sparkled and smiled and clearly enjoyed herself more than any of her stiff, often somber male colleagues, has already demonstrated considerable fund-raising prowess (her 2010 congressional campaign broke records) and enjoys semi-celebrity status because of her notorious rants on cable TV.

In this appearance, however, she had obviously abandoned the flame-thrower persona in favor of approach that could actually qualify as… presidential. She looked seasoned and sure-footed most of the night, even though she stumbled through two confusing and contradictory answers to late-in-the-game questions on social issues (about whether she’d accept gay marriage in states like New Hampshire where it’s already operational, and how she felt about Pawlenty’s willingness to permit abortions in instances of rape, incest, and a risk to the mother’s life).

More interesting than these abstruse ruminations were her political instincts at the conclusion of the formal broadcast. CNN kept cameras on the candidates as the network talking-heads delivered voice-over commentary on what had just occurred. Most of the contenders embraced their wives and socialized with one another, milling about on stage. I noticed that Bachmann, on the other hand, plunged into the crowd of spectators, shaking hands, signing autographs, making new friends, flashing that perfect smile with its charmingly imperfect teeth. She is, quite simply, one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met in politics and she gained ground in the debate because some of that natural warmth and ebullience managed to come across.

As for Romney, he also helped himself, showing vast improvement from his robotic debate performances from four years before. Two strengths stood out most conspicuously here: first, his admirable ability to turn any question on any subject into an opportunity to bash Obama, as if they were already fighting it out for the White House, just the two of them. He never let the audience forget that the president represented his true opponent and that any minor disagreements with Pawlenty or Santorum or Gingrich hardly mattered.

Second, it’s obvious that Mitt has now conquered one of the toughest challenges facing any participant in televised debates—listening to your rivals respectfully, without looking smug or supercilious or discomfited or, worst of all, bored. Al Gore famously lost his second debate with George W. Bush in large part because he greeted many of his opponent’s answers with audible, impatient sighs. Romney on the other hand, looked directly at the other debaters when they spoke, smiling sympathetically, suggesting fellowship, courtesy, even open-mindedness. In general, Mitt looked considerably more comfortable and more at ease than he ever did in 2008; assuming he’s received some serious media coaching, it’s safe to say it paid off handsomely.

His only weak moment came on a question suggesting that pro-lifers might distrust him because he formally endorsed abortion rights. His feeble, oddly plaintive answer—that he counted as proudly, unequivocally pro-life because he had campaigned that way four years ago—amounted to a missed opportunity to reassure those who still see in Romney an excess of calculation and a shortage of passion.

The biggest missed opportunity, however, marred Pawlenty’s otherwise capable outing: when asked why he had used the term “Obamaney-care” on Fox News to emphasize the similarity between the health plans of Barack and Mitt, he provided only a lame narrative (which he recited twice) about Obama himself suggesting he had borrowed key ideas from the Massachusetts plan Romney at one time proudly promoted. Pawlenty pointedly refused to engage Romney on his point of greatest vulnerability, even after moderator John King goaded him by saying he had been willing to make snide remarks about Mitt in the safety of a cable news studio, but wouldn’t try it when his rival stood beside him for a live televised event.

In one sense, T-Paw may have displayed admirable instincts to avoid going after his opponent with hammer-and-tong ferocity in their very first joint appearance; it’s probably too early in the process for any sort of nasty confrontation. But he should have at least cited the main similarity between Romney’s health reform and Obama’s bureaucratic nightmare: both schemes rely on an individual mandate, in which government uses its bullying power to require that every citizen purchase health insurance. Pawlenty could have delivered a far more effective but still gracious response by saying, “No, I don’t want to debate the details of Governor Romney’s plan—that’s irrelevant outside of Massachusetts, and I understand that in that very liberal state there are some people who still like it. But I just think it’s the wrong approach when government gives us more orders rather than allowing us more liberty; when government grows and freedom shrinks. Governor Romney and Barack Obama both supported plans that forced people to buy insurance, whether they wanted it or needed it or not. I just think that’s exactly the wrong approach.”

In other answers, particularly on foreign policy and right-to-work laws, Pawlenty delivered crisp, focused, persuasive sound bites that came across with special effectiveness when delivered in his aw-shucks, Mr. Rogers, friendly neighbor demeanor.

Rick Santorum also provided coherent, thoughtful responses to every question he faced and came across like a seasoned, trustworthy, telegenic and impressive conservative. His problem? There’s no segment of the party base ready to rally to his banner. The Tea Party platoons (effusively praised by Santorum) are already somewhat divided between Ron Paul, Herman Cain and now (in much greater numbers, presumably) Michele Bachmann. If Rick Perry of Texas belatedly joins the fray, he’ll also draw substantial Tea Party support. Santorum, with no money and no natural power-base (he lost his last statewide election in Pennsylvania by 18 points) will find it impossible to escape the dreaded “Good Guy/Can’t Win” label—like the Ralph Bellamy role in Golden Age Hollywood movies, with a character who’s upright, admirable, handsome, hard-working and with no chance at all of winning a glamorous leading lady who’s more likely to go for the raffish Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart.

Finally, the three guys who don’t really belong on that stage: Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Ron Paul.

Newt looked less scary than expected, and never conveyed the battered air of a candidate on an epic losing streak whose presidential aspirations had recently exploded in a welter of accusations and embarrassments. On stage in New Hampshire, he provided informed and well-crafted responses, but hardly delivered the brilliant nuggets one might expect from what pundits invariably describe as “the most brilliant, creative mind in the Republican Party.” Newt did well, but no better than Romney, Pawlenty, Santorum or Bachmann. Given the crushing baggage he must lug through all future laps in this long race, the former Speaker did little to jump-start his sputtering campaign.

Among the seven candidates who showed up at St. Anselm, Herman Cain may have hurt himself the most. His line about “bringing the best minds together in a room, getting the right answers, and then forming a new policy” has begun to sound like a dodge and a platitude, not the endearing modesty of a self-advertised non-politician. His other answers (particularly the muddled and ignorant defense of a prior statement about feeling uncomfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet) showed not just every-man naivete but appalling ignorance. It’s now clear that his problem isn’t that he doesn’t read briefing papers; it’s that he doesn’t read newspapers. As a consistently successful businessman, Mr. Cain ought to realize that no big corporation would hire a new CEO who hadn’t thoroughly familiarized himself with the top issues on the agenda, and proposed decisive approaches; it’s not enough to say you’ll count on experts to set you straight.

And speaking of setting the record straight, I now acknowledge that my past insults aimed at Ron Paul (calling him “Dr. Demento,” among other endearments), may have counted as overly generous. Last time he ran, the Mad Doctor inspired a cult following and raised a great deal of money, but won fewer than 30 delegates and consistently modest primary vote totals. This time, he’ll do even worse: his body language (waving his arms and twitching his eyebrows like a pan-handling street corner prophet predicting the end of the world) and not just his words suggest a crank and a crackpot. Even Dennis Kucinich might have been embarrassed by Dr. Paul’s suggestion that halting the bombing of Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Yemen would actually make the United States more secure, or that eliminating “welfare to foreign nations” would allow us to continue current levels of Medicare (that cost more than a hundred times what we spend on all foreign aid programs combined).

At least Dr. Paul rightly ridiculed Herman Cain’s repeated promise to consult experts before reaching decisions. The crotchety 75-year-old promised to bring all the troops home regardless of the advice or insistence of his generals and admirals because, after all “I’m Commander in Chief.”

Those words provided the debate’s single most chilling moment and will encourage any voters who paid attention to this exercise to rush to support the more plausible candidates. Yes, Dr. Paul provides some comic relief and a bit of unpredictability that sometimes enlivens boring televised debates but his presence also undermines the valuable idea that there is such a thing as a consistent GOP message, and that running for the presidency amounts to serious business.

This column appeared originally in The Daily Beast on June 14, 2011.

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