Last night was what felt like the 4,823rd Republican Presidential Primary Debate. It was one that mostly focused on the economy, which seems to be a new, and welcome, trend in these debates. Before this debate began, the pundits were calling an elimination round. They all felt that this would be a big turning point in the primary process where someone would be pushed out. I thought this was a hyped up and baseless conclusion. I was wrong, and they were right.
This debate considerably changed the dynamic of the GOP field. We have seen candidates rise and fall over long stretches of time, but tonight we got to see them rise and fall, and in at least one case, hit rock bottom, in two short hours. As per usual, I will try and concisely list the biggest takeaways from this debate.
- Rick Perry: Simply one of the worst debaters I have ever seen. It actually gets worse with each outing. Today everyone is talking about Perry’s campaign-crushing moment (video) where he confidently stated he would cut three federal agencies, and then could only name two of them. This led the other candidates to feel so bad for Perry that they were trying to help him remember by naming agencies. After nearly a minute of this complete disaster playing out before our eyes, Perry said in a defeated tone “I don’t remember.” It was painful, I actually had a physical reaction to seeing this moment play out. I almost felt bad for Perry, despite the fact that I generally do not like him as a candidate at all. However, even if you watched the whole debate without this gaff (I’m being generous with that term), Perry still blew it. He took up less air time than Michele Bachmann, he did not answer any questions with specificity, and he shouted platitudes and slogans at every opportunity. Perry’s campaign will now slip from 8% in the polls to something even lower, maybe below 5%, putting him only slightly above Huntsman and Gary Johnson. There is even a possibility that he will begin to poll so low that he could not meet the requirements to participate in a televised debate. It’s sad, but he did it to himself.
- Herman Cain: Cain entered the top tier a few weeks ago and to the surprise of many (not us) he has remained there, tying Mitt Romney in most polls. Many thought that Cain would fall after allegations of sexual harassment were picked up and pushed hard by the mainstream media. However, it seems as though Cain’s numbers and fundraising are only going up as a result. Tonight, when CNBC brought up the harassment claims, the audience booed. Then the moderators cornered Romney, asking if he would keep Cain as a CEO at a company based on these reports. Romney dismissed the question for being ridiculous. The crowd again booed the moderators, but cheered Romney’s response. Cain, like Perry, did some damage to himself in this campaign, and it had nothing to do with his “stimulus package.” Cain’s 9-9-9 plan has always been the punchline of political jokes, even if people are taking it seriously as a plan. However, Cain is now bringing it up in questions that have nothing to do with tax reform. He is basically becoming the parody that SNL would like to present of his candidacy. Cain did not have the debate presence he has had in other recent debates. I believe it will be reflected in the polls, but not enough to take him out of second place.
- Newt Gingrich: Best performance of the night. Newt was intelligent, as always, and debated in a way that surely made Republicans everywhere wish he did not carry so much baggage with him. Newt is now third place in the polls, and as a result he got a significant bump in response time, and showed again and again that he is indeed the smartest candidate on the stage. His one liners about the media being biased, although becoming somewhat stale, were pointed and effective. His ability to explain the issues and solutions was far above that of anyone else on stage.
- Mitt Romney: Close second to Newt. Romney looked just as polished as ever and, yet again, had a strong command of any issue thrown his way. There were numerous times where Romney addressed Obama rather than his current opponents, showing that he is indeed thinking ahead. The amazing amount of calculation that goes into his answers and pre-planted lines indicates a keen awareness that everything he says now is going to be used against him on youtube next year. He is not running to the right only to sprint back to the center next summer. Romney is running as Romney, and he is winning over more voters after every debate. As for his weak moment, when discussing China, Romney claimed that he would be for starting a trade war. The answer came across as pandering (which Huntsman pointed out immediately after) and seemed unRomney. Being a successful businessman, Romney understands the problems that a trade war with the chinese and other protectionist policies would cause for the United States. He shouldn’t be pushing it just because its so in right now.
- Everyone Else: Huntsman landed another joke that no one laughed at when he mimicked Newt regarding the amount of time allotted for responses. Bachmann seemed less crazy than usual, but thats probably because she did not get to talk all that much. Ron Paul basically pressed play on recordings of previous debates and gave the same answers he always gives. And Rick Santorum was Rick Santorum.
This debate will, unlike some of the others, have a real effect on the voter perceptions of each candidate. After watching it, all I could think was “wow.” And to think, we only have 13 more of these things to go.