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Ames presidential debate: Winners and losers

at 11:44 PM ET, 08/11/2011


Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is seen on screen during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)
AMES, Iowa — The second major debate of the 2012 Republican presidential race is in the books.

The first hour was a very lively affair, the second hour much less so. But, we watched it all — that is what they pay us for after all — and came up with our early line on the winners and losers from the night that was.

Agree with our picks? Disagree? The comments section is open for business.

WINNERS

* Mitt Romney: For the second straight debate, the frontrunning former Massachusetts governor coasted — dodging any major attacks from his rivals and focusing almost every answer on jobs, the economy and President Obama. Meanwhile, Romney watched while Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty — two of his main rivals for the nomination — savaged one another. Romney and his campaign team couldn’t have scripted it any better. All that said, Romney’s day was far from perfect; his “corporations are people, too” line is going to come back to haunt him if he winds up as the GOP nominee. Still, that’s a problem for another day and tonight Romney did what he needed to do.

* Ron Pau l: The Texas Congressman has functioned as an amusing oddity for the last four years in the presidential race. Not tonight. Amid whispers that Paul could perform better than expected in the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday, he was at the center of the conversation for the entire second hour of the debate. While Paul’s rhetoric — particularly his push for the gold standard and removing our troops from places like Iraq and Afghanistan — is still well outside of the Republican mainstream, he had the best chance he has ever enjoyed to air his views.

* Michele Bachmann: Was the Minnesota Congresswoman as good as she was in the New Hampshire debate in June? No. Bachmann ocassionally came off as a talking points cheerleader without much substance beneath it. And her decision to punch down repeatedly as Pawlenty attacked her is questionable. Still, Bachmann successfully cast herself as someone willing to stand up on principle on major matters like raising the debt ceiling — a posture that will appeal to not only straw poll voters on Saturday but also Iowa voters next February. She also successfully handled a very tough question on whether she would be submissive to her husband as president well — explaining that she views submission as an issue of “respect”. Did we mention she got the first interview on Sean Hannity’s show when the debate was over?

* First Hour Tim Pawlenty: Pawlenty was forceful in taking the fight to Bachmann and even showed his ability to stick the verbal knife in with a smile when he joked that he would only mow an acre of Romney’s lawn. Pawlenty’s nice guy persona allows him to attack without seeming over the top. He was a major player in the first 60 minutes — a place he needed to be if he wanted to shake things up before the Saturday straw poll.

* Fox moderators: Yes, they — well, Chris Wallace — became part of the debate, which is usually not a good thing. But, Wallace and Bret Baier in particular were willing to pose questions that forced candidates to address their major weakenesses in the race and — perish the thought! — occasionally divert from their talking points. Yes, debates are about the candidates. But, when the candidates are doing everything they can avoid answering any/every question, you need moderators willing to mix it up. And the Fox folks were.

* Fireworks: After a sleepy debate in June in New Hampshire, this one had a lot more excitement. Obviously Pawlenty vs Bachmann was the marquee confrontation but there was former Sen. Rick Santorum vs Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich vs Paul and just a little bit of Pawlenty vs Bachmann. That’s a lot of good matchups. And for people who pooh-pooh the focus on the back and forth between candidates remember that elections are about choices and defining the differences between candidates is critical to making those choices.

LOSERS

* Newt Gingrich: Has there ever been a question asked by a moderator in a debate that Gingrich thought was worthy of him? He chastised Wallace for asking “Mickey Mouse” questions and repeatedly took issue with the queries aimed his way. While Gingrich’s combativeness can work at times, it appears to be his default tone. And it’s hard to imagine Gingrich persuading many people by scrapping with the moderators over the content and format of the debate.

* Rick Santorum: Santorum needed a moment in this debate in hopes of making a move on Saturday at the straw poll. He never really found one. And, to the extent he had one — on the sanctity of life — it came in the late stages of the debate when lots of people has likely turned in for the night.

* Second hour Tim Pawlenty: Pawlenty disappeared in the second 60 minutes — largely because he didn’t get many questions. But when you need to find ways to change the dynamic of the race, you have to find ways to inject yourself into the conversations and create your own opportunities. And Pawlenty didn’t do that; he felt like an afterthought. Of course, it’s far better to do well in the first half of a debate that starts at 9 pm on the east coast than in the second hour of it when lots of people are in bed.

* Two hour debates: Two words: too long. A 90-minute debate is more than enough. Seriously. Once you go beyond 90 minutes, the candidates tend to just revert to their talking points, talking points we have already heard in the first portion of the debate. The only thing that should be two hours long are movies.

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