Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What The First Debate Told Us

The first GOP presidential debate held in New Hampshire is only the first of many such events that will take place between now and the end of the primary/caucus season next year. Results from a first debate can hardly be expected to be dispositive about the race, and none of the candidates behaved in a manner that will disqualify them from going on.

Nevertheless, the debate signaled that the Republican contest is going to be hard fought, and that the field, as it stands now, has been undervalued generally by the media. At least two more “serious” candidates are likely to enter the race very soon, and the next debate could be noticeably larger.

A number of opinions have already been expressed by pundits, political operatives, and campaign staff figures about who “won” and who “lost.” I urge the reader to be cautious about making judgments based on these various opinions, including any that I might express here.

I do think some candidates enhanced their standing in the public with their performance in the debate, and others did not. The consensus of “conventional wisdom” was that Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain were in this positive category. Consensus seems to suggest that Tim Pawlenty missed an opportunity to enhance his, and that Ron Paul and Rick Santorum did little to improve their image. This conventional assessment may or may not be entirely correct, but the general impression is that the whole field had an initial positive evening.

This occurred in spite of the very flawed format created by CNN for the debate, and I hope that the individual campaigns and candidates will resist the gimmickry and moderator interference of this format imposed by sponsors and producers of future debates.

Almost certainly, the next debates will include the eventual full field. Former Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah and current Texas Governor Rick Perry are likely to be not only serious candidates, but should be strong new voices in future debates if one or both of them enter the race. The first debate saw the candidates turn their main criticism to President Obama, his administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress. As the calendar approaches actual voting, most of these candidates will be sorely tempted to attack each other as well.

Mr. Huntsman, advertised in advance as the most moderate figure in the field, may introduce some conflict in future debates, but for now, the whole field seems in general agreement on most issues. Only Mr. Paul has clear record of believing in very different perspectives on major issues, and as happened in the last cycle, he is expected to receive very limited if somewhat noisy support from his small neo-libertarian base. On foreign policy, in particular, Mr. Paul is outside the general conservative agreement on foreign policy. Mr. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, is familiar with the issues, but other than his resume, there was no indication from the first debate of why he is running for president.

Mr. Gingrich has been widely dismissed in the media, and among political insiders, following his recent gaffes and the quitting from his national campaign by some of his top staff. His strong performance at the first debate, however, indicates he is not going to fade away any time soon.

The promotion of Mrs. Bachmann’s performance in the debate included much of it coming from the Old Media and liberal Democrats whose sincerity and wisdom on the subject is seriously in doubt. Mr. Obama’s supporters would rejoice if Mrs. Bachmann were the GOP nominee. I also think the criticism of Mr. Pawlenty’ performance is, at the least, premature. He has shown himself in the past to be a quick study, and could shine in future debates.

Finally, Mr. Romney’s standing was clearly improved in New Hampshire. He did not make any mistakes, while he sounded as if he were more and more in command. He has political weaknesses, and does not yet, have the conservative GOP base behind him, but if future debates go generally as this first one did, his “frontrunner” status
will become more difficult to overcome.

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