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Assessing the ABC News/Des Moines Register Debate

Throughout most of yesterday's debate, I was thoroughly impressed. After all, the forum allowed for much more substantive discussions than usual – that is, each candidate had more than ample opportunity to express their opinions and engage one another over various issues. What’s more, there were some gaffes, but none were major – and everyone seemed well prepared. In any event, since I don’t believe there was a clear winner, candidates are evaluated in alphabetical order.


Here’s the breakdown:

Bachmann – After coming off a recent surge in several new Iowa polls, Michele Bachmann may have tallied her strongest performance to date. I thought she did an exceptional job of distinguishing her record from that of the other candidates, particularly with regards to health care. Her vehement opposition to Obamacare and her genuine efforts in congress to repeal it – as she memorably explained – was one of the highlights of the night for Team Bachmann. Her tendency to disregard facts, however, didn’t do her any favors. Her contention that Newt supported Obamacare, for example, was patently false and misleading. Nevertheless, her criticisms of the President’s failed domestic agenda and misguided economic policies garnered sustained applause from the audience. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her rise in the polls.

Gingrich - As I suspected and wrote about in my preview post, the former House Speaker was certainly well prepared tonight. In case there was any doubt, Gingrich demonstrated yet again that he is deeply informed on an array of issues and is one of the strongest debaters in the GOP field. That being said, however, I thought he came off as petulant at times, especially after quipping that the only reason Mitt Romney wasn’t a career politician was because he lost to Ted Kennedy in the Massachusetts Senate race in 1994. He quickly recovered, though, when he gave the most candid and pro-Israeli statement of the night. In an unprecedented and unexpected maneuver, he directed his sincere angst at Washington politicians – and the current administration – for ignoring the fact that American taxpayer dollars are continually funding anti-Semitic regimes hostile to Israel. This, of course, is an issue that has largely been ignored. His willingness to bring it up, moreover, has the potential to endear him to Jewish voters, an important Republican constituency.

Paul – As the only top tier contender who has not attained frontrunner status this primary season, Ron Paul offered up a number of zingers tonight. Although he again advocated a non-interventionist foreign policy, as I suspected he would, he did so in a way that was cautious and not overtly abrasive. Further, his comments about the need for politicians to take their oath of office seriously – an issue I’ve never heard discussed in these political forums before – was an interesting and nuanced approach to making government more efficient and accountable. I don’t think tonight’s debate will necessarily boost him in the polls, but it’s clear, as several of the other candidates suggested, that his loyal supporters aren’t leaving the Hawkeye State anytime soon.

Perry – Rick Perry was undoubtedly ready for tonight’s forum. Indeed, he delivered his most incisive rebuke of President Obama's foreign policy to date. The current President’s willingness to allow Egypt’s government to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, for example, was unconscionable in Perry’s view. This was, to say the least, a powerful statement. Also, unlike any of the other candidates, he advocated term limits for members of congress, an interesting concept given the partisan gridlock that has engulfed Washington in recent years. As a side note, I also thought he had the most compelling personal narrative. Perry’s rise from poverty – his family didn’t even have running water until he was five years old – is a uniquely American story that may resonate with working class voters. Parting thought: Given his strong performance in tonight’s debate and the millions of dollars his campaign has collected since announcing his candidacy, is there a Team Perry comeback in the making?

Romney – Although Mitt Romney debated well tonight – as he usually does – the former governor missed, perhaps intentionally, several key opportunities to excoriate Newt Gingrich. As noted in my preview post, with less than a month until the Iowa Caucuses, Team Romney needs to be more aggressive. And that just didn’t happen tonight. While his most formidable opponent is more often than not able to deflect personal and political attacks directed against him, Romney refused to expose Newt’s weaknesses as a candidate. While I believe his private sector achievements as a businessman are laudable, I don’t think his continued reticence will earn him the nomination.

Santorum - The former Pennsylvania Senator proved why he belonged on stage tonight. Interestingly, Santorum seems to be one of the few GOP hopefuls who actually uses his legislative record to his advantage. He clearly explained tonight how as a member of congress he was able to work across party lines to pass welfare reform, implement anti-abortion legislation, and put sanctions on Iran. These achievements, in effect, underscore his potential for leading our partisan federal government. Santorum, moreover, is also the most pro-family candidate running for president. Although I’ve never quite understood why he hasn’t resonated with more voters – especially in the conservative state of Iowa – the extra attention he received tonight might work to his advantage in the critical weeks ahead.


Well, that’s my initial reaction. Is my analysis spot-on or way off? Did I miss any key exchanges? As usual, please let the conversation continue in the comments section below…

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