Fox News itself dominated this one, with a blizzard of gotcha questions and political questions, and hardly any questions about public policy. That meant Newt Gingrich having to defend himself on Freddie Mac for an extended period early in the debate, and Ron Paul (totally unfairly in my view) having to defend opposing earmarks in general while also looking out for his constituents. Mitt Romney was pressed on flipping on social issues, too.
What all of that means is that there are plenty of clips that anyone could take from this debate and use in future attack ads.
But beyond that? The candidate I’ve been focused on is Rick Perry, since I still believe that he’s the only Republican with serious chance to defeat Mitt Romney. Perry continues to improve; he’s probably as good as anyone at dishing out red-meat attack lines on Congress, the courts and President Obama as any of them, and he’s much better at avoiding the kinds of meandering that used to mark his debate performances. He’s not going to win this thing in the debates, but any Republican Iowa voter (or GOP opinion leader) who was tuning in tonight to give Perry a second chance probably liked what he saw. Are there enough of those? In Iowa, it’s hard to tell, but there sure are a lot of people – if the polls are correct – who are looking around still.
Romney did fine. He’s an odd guy to watch in these things; he can get on a riff, usually policy-related, and sound as good as anyone, but he can also get sidetracked into actually trying to answer a question that he should have ducked. Abortion, for example: Why did he spend an entire answer plus follow-ups carefully explaining his positions on abortion, guns, and gays and lesbians? A much better path for him would have been to dispose of all that in ten seconds (you know my record, and know that all of us on this stage are 100 percent pro-life now) and then pivot to the importance of jobs and getting rid of that job-killing socialist Obama.
At any rate, the bottom line at this point is that the ad wars and the saturation coverage in Iowa and on Fox News and conservative talk radio is going to be the most important thing over the last couple of weeks. Nothing tonight likely slowed Gingrich’s descent in the polls, or, as far as I could see, determined which candidate will gain from that decline. At least, not the debate itself; winning the spin from it, which is affected not so much by what happened but by how high-profile Republicans choose to play it, certainly could have a significant effect. For that, you’ll need to go to Fox News or the Rush Limbaugh show, however – not Plum Line.