Judging who wins and loses a debate is a very subjective task, and in the case of a major party presidential debate, the subjectivity is often magnified by the judge’s (pundit’s) personal preferences.
I am not supporting any of the candidates who were on the stage last night, although I have repeatedly contended that Mitt Romney is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination (many respected colleagues do not agree with me on this, including my friend the dean of the DC press corps, Michael Barone). Indeed, over the past three weeks, the precipitous rise in the polls of newly-entered candidate, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, has seemed to signal that Mr. Romney is no longer the favorite for the nomination.
Most attention, therefore, was on Mr. Perry’s performance last night, and on the comparison with him and Mr Romney. My judgment is, and some will no doubt see it differently, is that Mr Romney once more demonstrated why he has been the frontrunner until now (and why he continues to be). His poise, command of the subjects raised, and quick rejoinder to Mr. Perry’s criticism was the most “presidential” of the evening. Moreover, his performance, I think, has temporarily halted Mr. Perry’s sudden momentum.
Governor Perry did well last night overall, although his lack of experience at these debates perhaps led him to miss opportunities to explain some of his controversial comments prior to the debate. Most notable of this was his failure to explain his allegation that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.” This was a high-risk comment he made recently, and the debate was his opportunity to clarify what he meant. Yes, there are aspects of Social Security today that resemble the notorious scam (most notably the fact that recipients are receiving more than they put into the Social Security Trust Fund), but unlike a Ponzi scheme, Social Security can easily be repaired, albeit with some sacrifice, and further, it was not ever an intentional fraud making an individual perpetrator rich at the expense of his or her victims. Most damaging, by not explaining himself, Mr. Perry made himself vulnerable to both his Republican rivals and, eventually to President Obama, who will highlight Mr. Perry’s criticism of Social Security to millions of seniors (and voters) now receiving the program’s benefits, leaving the impression that he might try to end the program (which, to be fair, does not seem to be his intent). Nevertheless, Mr. Perry will have other opportunities to show his “stuff” in the months ahead.
Michelle Bachmann, whose own momentum was recentlly blocked when Mr. Perry entered the race (in spite of her having just won the Iowa Straw Poll), was relatively invisible at the Santa Barbara debate. But, while some have now dismissed Mrs. Bachmann as a one-day wonder, I think she still has cards to play in the caucuses and primaries ahead in February and March.
Newt Gingrich once again had the applause line of the debate when he criticized debate moderators for “trying to create conflict between the candidates on the stage,” and for not asking serious enough questions. He has served as a lone voice for improving the debates until now. (In full disclosure, I worked with Mr. Gingrich in creating and producing the 2006 Cooper Union dialogue between himself and former Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, and co-wrote a published op ed with him calling for a better debate system in 2008.] It’s clear to me that the quality of the questions depends on those who ask them, and on the moderators. Although the questions at the Santa Barbara debate were somewhat better than at earlier debates, the moderators and questioners (many of whom are politically hostile to the GOP candidates) are still too obsessed with sensational (but superficial) issues and constrained by their own biases in forming the questions. The lack of major neutral and conservative journalists as moderators and questioners at these debates so far is frankly a scandal, and I don’t know why more of the candidates (aside from Mr. Gingrich) are not complaining about this.
There were others on the stage, most notably former Utah Governor Jon Hunstman, but, barring some remarkable new development, they are not now likely to emerge as major contestants once the actual voting takes place.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were the only major potential candidates not at the Santa Barbara debate. Neither are likely to enter the race in 2012, although if Governor Christie were participating in these debates, the whole race might be turned upside down.