Last night, six of the GOP candidates (from stage left: Santorum, Perry, Romney, Gingrich, Paul, Bachmann) for the presidential nomination met on stage in Iowa for a televised debate hosted by ABC News correspondents Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos. The event lasted nearly two hours. Impressions:
- Sawyer and Stephanopoulos did a good job at moderating. They tended to be warmer than other moderators, and less critical of the candidates. They seemed to view their job as being facilitators rather than dictators, being much less aggressive about timekeeping than, say, Scott Pelley was, and more celebratory of the human side of campaigning. Although Sawyer’s delivery tended to ramble a bit, the questions themselves were fair game and delivered in fair manner. The pair made for the best debate moderators I’ve seen yet this cycle.
- Maybe it was the more relaxed timekeeping, or that there were fewer candidates on stage (Cain backed out and Huntsman and Johnson weren’t present), but it seemed like the candidates had more time for crossfire and to express themselves in a reasonable amount of time. No one was really cut off the entire night. Everyone on stage had plenty of time to talk — no “Siberia” in the corners, as it were.
- Santorum performed well. His answers were generally good, and delivered strongly, although he felt too nervously earnest. Like the popular high school jock running for class president, and you know in 10 years he’ll be selling used cars and be overweight with three kids and a minivan. Unfair, I know. I just wish he seemed warmer and less uptight. He could try smiling and even crack a joke every now and then.
- Perry had a good night — he rarely stumbled and had some fairly decent answers, although it’s not clear he helped himself by appearing unable to count to three. He has a maddening habit of giving a cursory answer to the question presented to him and then using the rest of his time to answer someone else’s questions — the net effect is to suggest that he can’t answer on the fly and instead needs to think about what the last guy said and then try to one-up it.
- Romney was Romney — generally polished, with good answers and an easy grace. He took more of a beating than Gingrich (unfairly, I think, from Bachmann) but handled it OK. The ABC News commentators argued that Romneys’ “$10,000 bet” to Perry about the contents of Romney’s book hurt him in Iowa, because Iowans don’t bet $10k even on sure things. Not sure I believe that — it was a gimmick, but it pushed Perry on defense. I wasn’t a huge fan of Romney’s answer about Gingrich’s “Palestinians are an invented people” claim: The former governor seemed to suggest that the President of the United States needs the approval of the Prime Minister of Israel before opening his mouth about Middle East affairs, an absurd claim if ever there was one. Yes, Gingrich’s comment was ill-timed. But it wasn’t wrong, and to suggest publicly that making statements of that sort requires pre-clearance by the Israeli government transmits a sense of American weakness I think it’s best to avoid. Romney seems to defer to the side of caution. This may be admirable in a POTUS but as a candidate being blunt about being cautious sends the wrong signals.
- Gingrich was Gingrich. The Speaker did well, giving generally good answers. Sometimes he seemed a bit too impressed by his own cleverness, but again — Gingrich was Gingrich. He handled the marital-fidelity question with grace. Newt is a polished extemporaneous speaker. The ABC News commentators suggested that by this point, it’s Gingrich instead of Romney who’s the apparent nominee. I wouldn’t be upset by a Gingrich candidacy, but it’ll take a lot of discipline to get through the primaries then the general election, and Newt’s lack of discipline is … well, legendary.
- Paul remains the GOP’s irascible old curmudgeon of an uncle. He provides color, and a welcome diversity to the ideological spectrum on the stage, but his policy proscriptions are so off-kilter that it’s good for America he’s polling so poorly.
- Bachmann enjoyed a very strong night. She spoke frequently, and forcefully, on many issues. Although her performance was solid and likely helped her in Iowa, her bulldog-like attacks on Gingrich and Romney seemed contrived and desperate (and were successfully rebuffed by both men simultaneously heaping scorn on her for the comparison) and when she gets on a roll, her eyes glaze over and she doesn’t blink or shift her gaze. Minor point, but it kinda creeps me out. And she needs to stop worshipping Herman Cain.
In all, the debate left me heartened about the overall quality of the Republican field. Any of the people on stage — even Paul, and even the candidates who weren’t there — would make a far better president than the incumbent.
The current horse race puts it as a two-way competition between Romney and Gingrich. I’m OK with either candidate. I think Romney would perform better with independents in the general election, but Gingrich may inspire more conservatives to turn out. And although Obama is currently weak, the Democrat’s chances could improve, and the eventual GOP nominee may well suffer from self-inflicted danger.
The long series of debates had a real impact on the nomination process. Painful as it sometimes was, the system did its job of helping Republican voters better understand who their nominees really are. For that, and for the quality of Republican candidates in this cycle, every conservative ought to be relieved.