GOP voters want candidate who will measure up during debates

Critics have accused the Republican electorate in recent years of putting a higher premium on ideological purity than on policy knowledge.

But the success of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the current presidential primary fight tells a much different story. It’s a story of an electorate that is placing a high premium on candidates’ ability to appear knowledgeable and articulate on the issues, giving these factors an even higher level of importance than ideological consistency.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race in August, he quickly vaulted to the top of the pack. But after a string of flubs and deer-in-the-headlights moments during the debates, he dropped like a rock. Perry attempted to play the anti-establishment card to contain the damage done by his debate performances, but the Republican electorate, thus far, has been unforgiving.

Herman Cain was the beneficiary of Perry’s collapse. His support surged in the early fall, but has since started to decline. As he came under more scrutiny, he stumbled on questions about abortion, Libya and China — as well as being damaged by sexual harassment allegations.

So it is hard to see how Romney and Gingrich would be co-leaders of the Republican field if it weren’t for their strong debate performances and command of issues.

Romney has, at various points in his career, taken positions on abortion, immigration and gun control that many conservatives would find objectionable. He supported the Wall Street bailout and his biggest accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts was signing a big-government health care law with a smiling Ted Kennedy at his side. That law became the basis for Obamacare.

Gingrich, despite his protestations to the contrary, is the consummate Washington insider. As The Washington Examiner has detailed, he has a history of lobbying for big-government policies that benefit large corporations that give him money. Gingrich supported an individual mandate, pushed for the costly Medicare prescription drug plan while taking money from pharmaceutical companies and recorded a climate change ad with Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Gingrich nearly sank his campaign earlier this year by charging that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan was too “radical” during a key moment in the budget debate. And this doesn’t even get into his messy personal history.

But what Gingrich and Romney do have going for them is that in debate after debate, they’ve come across as articulate, quick on their feet and fluent about a wide range of policy issues. And those have proven highly prized qualities for a Republican electorate eager to defeat President Barack Obama.

Philip Klein is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner.

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