The third time was a charm for the Republican presidential debates.
After an initial debate that most of the big names skipped, and a bizarre second debate undone by its own format, Thursday night’s debate in Ames, Iowa, had everything. Well, everything but a discussion of entitlements and the person of Rick Perry (although the Texas governor, about to enter the race Saturday, was mentioned by name). Still, it was a lively and worthwhile affair.
The candidates were combative: with one another as well as with the journalists asking the questions. The two big stories coming from the debate will surely be Tim Pawlenty’s sparring with fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann and the exception Newt Gingrich took to some of the questions he was asked.
Gingrich was feisty from the beginning, calling out panelist Chris Wallace for a “gotcha question” after the candidates had been asked to leave their talking points at the door. A question about a two-month-old story — the mass resignations of much of Gingrich’s campaign staff in June — hardly qualifies as a “gotcha question” in my view. But it set up Gingrich as a candidate ready to take on the media (even friendly Fox News), and he later took on the idea of the “super committee” tasked with designing $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions. He came off much better Thursday night than perhaps any time since his May speech at the Georgia Republican Convention — two days before he stumbled badly by calling a House GOP plan to reform Medicare “right-wing social engineering.” The debate performance was, in all likelihood, too little, too late.
Pawlenty and Bachmann tangled a few times, over the former governor’s contention that Bachmann’s record in Congress lacks accomplishment, and the congresswoman’s argument that Pawlenty forced her and other state legislators (at the time) to choose between creating a cigarette tax or weakening abortion restrictions. As has been the case throughout the campaign when the two have butted heads, Pawlenty seemed to come out looking worse despite making more substantive points. (But the biggest damage? That belongs to the notion that there is such a thing as “Minnesota nice.”)
In fact, Pawlenty seemed ready to take any shot that was open. Granted a do-over from the last debate, he challenged Mitt Romney head-on for the latter’s health reform law in Massachusetts and reclaimed his epithet “Obamneycare” to describe the law’s similarities with President Obama’s federal health reform. He also had perhaps the best line of the night, offering to cook dinner at the house of anyone who could find Obama’s deficit-cutting plan. He clearly had a sense of urgency Thursday night, but the debate did little to question the widespread belief that his campaign’s prospects rest on his performance in the straw poll that takes place in Ames on Saturday.
Romney, on the other hand, comes away as the winner of the debate by default — he entered it as the front-runner, and nothing happened during the debate to change that.
Bachmann looked human Thursday night. She nearly flubbed a question about Christian “submissiveness” to her husband — her face froze, but sustained boos from the crowd bought her time to collect her thoughts (and deliver a strong answer about mutual respect between spouses). She is still using the “blank check” line to describe the debt-ceiling deal, even though she named who signed the check (Congress), to whom it was made out (Obama), and for how much ($2.4 trillion). She is making an undeliverable promise in saying the economy would show signs of a turnaround within the first 90 days of a Bachmann presidency. And at one point she actually failed to reappear on stage before the telecast resumed from a commercial break; I half expected Wallace to ask her, “Are you sure you’re not a flake?” but he demurred.
There were also a couple of volleys between Rick Santorum and Ron Paul about foreign policy (because Santorum is for having one…I kid, Paulites, I kid!) and exactly what issues should be left up to the states (short answers — Paul: most of them; Santorum: nothing that relates to morality). It was entertaining, but ultimately the time would have been better spent hearing what all the candidates would do to fix Social Security and Medicare, two elephants in the room that remained unmentioned.
The elephants in the room that were mentioned were Sarah Palin and Rick Perry. Nothing of consequence was said about either one (Bachmann insisted once again that she and Palin are friends, not potential Jello-wrestling opponents), but the main consequence of the debate is to prove there’s an opening for someone. As Palin remains unlikely to enter the race, that someone would seem to be Perry. He’ll certainly spice up the next debate: Sept. 7 at the Reagan Library in California.
Oh, I almost forgot: Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman also appeared at the debate. Cain had a good line about immigration — “high fences and wide-open doors” — but otherwise failed to demonstrate he’s really a first-tier candidate. Huntsman is rapidly turning into this year’s version of Fred Thompson, if only Thompson had failed to generate any excitement before entering the race as well as afterward.
(Note: To give folks more time to read and comment on this post, Poll Position will run a little later than usual this week.)
– By Kyle Wingfield