The GOP Tea Party Debate


Caricatures: GOP Presidential Debate Participa...

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The Republican candidates have done two debates this week. Tonight’s debate was the best of three. The questions were focused and the candidates showed vim and vigor. Those lagging behind Romney and Perry in the polls needed to up their game, and two of the candidates did. Michelle Bachman shined and Rick Santorum did pretty well. Bachman is still in the game. Santorum is probably going to continue to lose traction.

Until tonight, I was looking forward to hearing more from John Huntsman. After tonight, I don’t care if we never hear from him again. I don’t see any potential there for this guy to break out. He’s glib, the opposite of self-effacing, and petty.

Ron Paul’s only real potential is as a spoiler. Tonight, as a senior congressman from Texas, he played the spoiler to Rick Perry. Paul’s presence will be a nuisance to Perry as long as Paul stays in the race.

Perry proved vulnerable on several points, including his HPV vaccination plan and his handling of illegal immigrants. Michelle Bachman may have succeeded in raising Perry’s weaknesses on these points to a level of appreciable resonance with his own base. Perry was on the defensive most of the evening. He limped through one defense after another in front of ultra-conservative Republicans, many of whom want to see Perry do well. And he was booed following one of his comments about the immigration issue.

Sometimes Perry looks and sounds like he’s channeling George Bush. He’s not an effective debater. I have real doubts about his ability to survive under close scrutiny in future debates.

Mitt Romney hit harder than he has in the past, but with the aplomb we’ve come to expect from him. I believe his problem is that he is uninspiring. He also comes across like a real establishment-type politician. But he’s in this race for the long haul and is the candidate to beat if Perry peters out. Romney projects stability. But he looks like the rich guy he is and hasn’t been comfortable reaching out to Tea Party Republicans who will, for better or worse, make a difference in the Republican nomination process.

Herbert Cain is a refreshing presence at these debates, and he’s doing a number of things well. Can he go the distance? It will be interesting to see. It’s nearly certain that he won’t get the nomination and I doubt that he would be anybody’s first choice as a vice presidential running mate. He could have a place at the table in the next president’s cabinet, though. He’d make a fine good-will ambassador.

That leaves Newt Gingrich.

At every debate so far, Gingrich has excelled. John King of CNN agrees. Newt Gingerich has had “back-to-back-to-back strong debate performances.” King blames Newt’s low poll numbers on his age. He thinks that voters are looking for the younger candidates to get the job done. I’ve wondered about this. But Newt does look like the adult in the room. This could turn things in his favor. When others are petty, kicking sand in each other’s faces, Newt just keeps taking the battle to Obama. He understands that the coming election will be very much about whether Obama should be re-elected. Newt is singularly capable of challenging Obama head-to-head. I suspect he’s the candidate that Obama fears the most.

So why is New Gingrich lagging in the polls?

1. Gingrich is especially disliked by the liberal media. They almost uniformly acknowledge his political prowess. His debating strengths are readily acknowledged. But he’s dangerous to the liberal cause.

2. The media prefers to cover the sensational. This explains, I think, the favor that Rick Perry enjoyed before even announcing his candidacy. Gingrich’s strengths will not be noticed as long as attention is poured on candidates whose substance remains a mystery.

3. Gingrich is the elder statesman of the group. He’s been around longer than anyone, except Ron Paul. He isn’t such a fresh face and he hasn’t been leading the new Republican charge to change the way business is done in Washington.

4. Gingrich has a couple of personal negatives to overcome. These were bigger news earlier on. If he begins to garnish renewed attention, they may return to haunt him.

These aren’t deal-breakers for Newt. The personal issues may already have been aired as much as they can be, and his interval of invisibility may have been good for him on this score. Ron Paul is polling in double digits, and Gingrich is down around 7%—about even with Bachman. Ron Paul is an anomaly. He won’t last. That should give Gingrich room to move up. And if Perry peters, as I expect (hope?), he can move up dramatically. If Gingrich endures and moves up in the polls, that will be a sensation and the media will have to cover the story. And he isn’t ancient. John McCain was ancient.

Here’s how Gingrich improves his standing, if he can hang in there long enough. The Perry fanfare fizzles as his debate performance deteriorates. This depends on Perry’s own limitations. It’s also reinforced by Bachman’s vigorous and effective attacks, as seen in the Florida debate. Bachman needs to play the spoiler long enough for Perry’s cache to diminish. In due course, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, and Rick Santorum need to drop out of the race. Herbert Cain must follow suit. That would leave Romney (a known quantity, but a force to be reckoned with), Perry (paired down to size), Michelle Bachman (maybe), and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich’s stature is sure to rise if there’s ever a two-way or three-way debate in which he participates. He can hold the Tea Party folks if their favorite candidates drop out, and he can win with independents who are weary of Obama.

But time will be a factor for Gingrich. He needs to win in the South Carolina primary. Rick Perry has the edge there now. Bachman could do well in SC, but for Perry. If the New Hampshire primary comes early enough, John Huntsman could cut into Mitt Romney’s strength there. This could minimize the effect of New Hampshire on a Gingrich bid.

I have no idea what to expect from Iowa, though it’s expected that Bachman could do well and is out of the game if she doesn’t.

Rick Perry has deeper pockets than Newt Gingrich. But Obama has deeper pockets than everyone. And I view it as cynical to suppose that the one with the most campaign money is the likely winner for that reason alone. (What kind of treasure chest did John McCain have during the last Republican primary?)

All of this may be wishful thinking. I would like to see a contest between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama. This would be a contest between two radically opposed ideologies on a national stage that is itself deeply divided. Gingrich’s penchant for clarifying ideas might force Obama to be more explicit about his own ideology. The electorate would be faced with starkly contrasting agendas defended by more-or-less articulate spokesmen.

There is one other variable that is important to Newt Gingrich’s chances: Sarah Palin has to remain in the sidelines . . . .

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