That made for a sometimes-entertaining evening for the audience in the hall and those watching on television. But it probably did little to help Republican voters figure out who has the stature and the strength to take on the president in 2012.
The debate, sponsored by Fox News, came at a moment when Obama’s approval ratings are spiking because of the successful mission that killed Osama bin Laden, though there has been no movement in the public’s view of his handling of the economy. The bin Laden death changed the equation for Thursday’s debate, forcing the candidates onto foreign policy turf, rather than being able to focus on the economy and government spending.
As a result, the five candidates who shared the stage had difficulty making a consistent case against the president. They found his foreign policy lacking, but they also found it necessary to praise the president for the raid in Pakistan that killed the world’s most infamous terrorist.
They reached considerable agreement on economic issues, as they sought to seize on rising gasoline prices, the debt and deficits and the sluggish recovery. But as often they differed on how to deal with Pakistan, on how long to stay in Afghanistan, on what to do about Medicare and Medicaid, and most especially, on social issues. As a result, they couldn’t develop a strong bill of particulars against the president.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty hoped to profit from the absence of such potential rivals as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former House speaker Newt Gingrich. He used his answers to strike out at the president on the economy and particularly on health care, where he said Obama had broken a series of promises about health care, made as a candidate.
But given the rules of fair play and the need to engage everyone in the debate, Pawlenty was often a bystander to candidates with little chance of winning the nomination. That especially included Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian Republican who has the same small but passionate following he did four years ago, and businessman Herman Cain, who spoke largely in forceful generalities but got a good response from the audience.
Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, an iconoclastic conservative who wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan immediately, also demanded and got air time that took away from the ability of Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum to take over the debate, as they might have hoped.