My take on the New Hampshire debate

My Washington Examiner colleagues have given their ongoing reactions to the CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader two-hour debate at St. Anselm’s College (what a fab auditorium!) of six Republican presidential candidates. Here are my more or less immediate reactions to each candidate’s performance.


Mitt Romney. In an early interchange on Tim Pawlenty’s disparagement of “Obamromneycare” Romney came out far ahead—and established a sense of command (a vital presidential quality) over Pawlenty and the other candidates. Romney came up with a good line—Obama never called me and asked my advice—and said that he would have said that Obamacare wouldn’t work. Pawlenty was on the defensive, saying that he was only responding to a question phrased in a particular way, and missed the chance to nail Romney for backing a mandate to buy health insurance—the feature of Obamacare which is now under attack in court by a majority of state governments. The subject never came up again, which is to Romney’s advantage. In addition, Romney gave good solid answers on several other questions, well tailored to the format demanding brief answers, on various issues. Notable among them was his defense of his opposition to the GM and Chrysler bailout, where he stood up for the rule of law and against turning over ownership shares to the United Auto Workers. On the debt ceiling, he launched a well justified attack on Barack Obama for not leading. I thought he misfired on one not very important issue, saying that eminent domain should not be used for private companies, when the question raised the issue whether it should be used for public utilities, which traditionally have had eminent domain-like powers to build electric transmission lines; but that doesn’t matter much in this context. Overall Romney showed a clear sense of command and directed well-aimed attacks at Barack Obama and his administration. He was well prepared for the format and did better than I thought.


Michele Bachmann. The rap against her is that she is inspirational but sometimes make statements she cannot defend. I don’t think she did that in this debate. On the contrary, she was well prepared with specifics. She defended the tea parties as part of the three-legged stool of national security, cultural conservative and free market economic conservatives—the definition of the conservative movement pioneered by William F. Buckley many years ago. She managed to tell viewers that she was a tax lawyer and that she raised three children and provided homes for 23 foster children—I don’t care how cynical you are; that’s impressive. She deftly quoted then-Senator Barack Obama—a voice more eloquent than mine—on the debt limit. She said that as president she wouldn’t go into states and lobby against allowing same-sex marriages and she brushed aside as numerically insignificant the question—always raised by liberals like CNN moderator John King—about abortions in cases of rape and incest. She used her seat on the Intelligence Committee to make her point that there is no vital American interest in Libya and quoted Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on how an Obama insider said he was “leading from behind.” An impressive performance.


Tim Pawlenty. I think he faltered on the Romneycare mandate issue. I was surprised that he seemed on the defensive and was unwilling to go hard against Romney on the single issue on which he is most vulnerable. He was also, I thought, oddly defensive on trade (“fair trade”).  He was strong in backing right-to-work laws by saying that no one should be forced to be a member of an organization and he was excellent on the liberal-phrased question on “separation of church and state,” arguing that that the purpose of the First Amendment was to protect people of faith from the government and not vice versa, and noting that 49 of the 50 states have constitutions mentioning God or the Creator. I also thought he scored on John King’s question on the 2008 vice presidential nominees, a zinger since of course Pawlenty was passed over by John McCain in favor of Sarah Palin, by saying that Biden was wrong on every major foreign policy issue, noting specifically his proposal to partition Iraq. He could have done even better by recalling that in the 2008 VP debate Biden assured viewers with great insistence that Article One of the Constitution is about the president, when in fact Article One is about Congress, in which Biden at that point had served for 36 years. But overall a somewhat disappointing performance by Pawlenty.


Rick Santorum. He was solid in giving answers that comport with his 16-year record in Congress and his major concerns, whether or not they advance his cause in this contest. He gave solid support to Paul Ryan’s premium support plan for Medicare—which John King insisted on labeling a voucher, though it isn’t—and was steadfast in asserting that the United States needs to stay in a forward position around the world to combat Islamist terrorists who seek to destroy us.


Newt Gingrich. This is not a format he is used to and the time limits don’t play to his strengths. His answer on space policy was intellectually serious and genuinely interesting but probably went over the heads of most viewers. His references to his votes for the Reagan tax cuts—30 years ago!—must have struck many viewers as weirdly historical (as if, to adopt a similar time perspective, candidates in the 1984 cycle referenced the Bricker Amendment or the tidelands oil controversies of the 1950s). He was defensive when King asked about his comments on Ryan’s Medicare plan and did not really repudiate his “right wing social engineering” characterization; instead in avuncular tones asked Republicans to go slow on Medicare reform—not a position well calculated to win votes in this race. On immigration I thought his analysis was excellent and his position eminently defensible—no serious citizen should get trapped into yes/no answers on what to do with 11 million illegal immigrants (that’s the latest Census estimate; John King said there were 20 million or so, not a good performance even for a journalist).  


Herman Cain. Charming, as usual, and generous to the others on the stage; alternatively illuminating in his candor and seemingly—on purpose?—confused in some of his responses. He doesn’t seem to know almost anything about foreign or military policy, which of course are the policy areas where any president has the most room to maneuver.

Ron Paul. He is Ron Paul and he did not fail to disappoint his enthusiasts. Others? I suspect they were confused by some of his answers on monetary policy and the like. I found him more charming than in the past.


Bottom line. This was a New Hampshire debate, but it has serious ramifications for Iowa as well. I have disparaged the idea that Romney is the frontrunner; I continue to think that given the polls no one is the frontrunner. But Romney behaved like a frontrunner tonight, one with confidence and sense of command and with the adroitness to step aside from two major issue challenges (Romneycare, his various views on abortion) he faces. Romney has wisely eschewed the Iowa caucuses this time, leaving as two major competitors there Pawlenty (from next door Minnesota and a genuine religious conservative) and Bachmann (not only from next door Minnesota but also born and raised in Iowa). Presumably they will both be competing not only in the Iowa precinct caucuses, but in the August 13 Iowa Republican straw poll in Ames. I think Bachmann emerged from this debate a more serious competitor and Pawlenty not a stronger one than he was before. You could extrapolate much from Pawlenty’s performance in support of the proposition that he is a serious candidate for the nomination. But you could extrapolate much from Bachmann’s performance that she is a serious competitor in the Ames straw poll. And if she could come out ahead of him, that would certainly shake up the race, and leave the way open for another competitor. Perhaps for Jon Huntsman, who wasn’t there tonight and who has indicated that he won’t compete in Iowa. Or perhaps for Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose 2010 race top advisers were part of the mass resignation last week from Newt Gingrich’s campaign, but who may not turn out to be a wine that will travel. Or perhaps for a draft for Paul Ryan, who it might be argued could enter late and be a substitute for Pawlenty as the competitor for Romney which Pawlenty did not succeed in being at St. Anselm’s flashy auditorium.  

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