Winners? Losers? Well, the first thing to remember is that there’s more hype than importance to these debates, even a relatively high-profile one such as this. So the first thing I’d tell you is that no one is going to win or lose the nomination thanks to Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library…indeed, no one is going to remember much of it in a week or two.
What that means is that nothing could really happen in these debates to change the structure of the contest, which remains basically a two-person race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.
What could have happened Wednesday night, but almost certainly didn’t, at least as I saw it, is that one of the six fringe candidates could have broken through and earned a few weeks of press and, therefore voter, attention. If that happened, I sure didn’t see it.
As far as the frontrunnrs, what the debate showed yet again is that practice usually matters in these things, and Mitt Romney has an awful lot more experience in presidential debating than does Rick Perry. My sense, and my sense of what my twitter feed was telling me, was that Perry had a lousy night, while Romney — as he has in each of these things — just outclassed the field. Again, practice helps.
But even if the general consensus confirms my sense that Perry didn’t do well, I’d strongly caution against reading very much into it. There are going to be a lot more of these, and there are lots of examples of candidates improving dramatically over the course of them. Most notably, the current president of the United States. Perry’s candidacy isn’t built on pure hype, but on the strength of his position in the party and the weakness of the rest of the field; a poor debate performance, even a string of them, won’t necessarily matter much, as long as everything else in his campaign goes well. And, remember, media coverage of debates is very much about expectations, and if Perry is perceived as having done poorly this time, it only sets his expectations lower for the next one.
The most notable thing about the Republican field, by the way, continues to be the absolute absence of a middle tier — candidates who would make perfectly plausible nominees, but just weren’t likely to win. I suppose that Tim Pawlenty would be playing that role if he had stuck around. I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the GOP systematically pushes those types of candidates out of the race far more efficiently than the Democrats do. I don’t think it affects the eventual nominee very much, but it sure does affect the atmosphere of early debates.
Also: The questions were, in fact, weak (Newt Gingrich was right about the moderators picking fights, although wrong about the reason for it), and the candidates collectively were woefully ill-informed (or at least acted ill-informed) about policy. I mean, really, the big problem with the U.S. has been too much inflation? Yikes! But that’s pretty much par for the course, although it would have been nice to have follow-up questions on Social Security as a Ponzi scheme and some of the other whoppers the candidates told. But as far as effects on the nomination are concerned, I’d say that very little happened at the Reagan Library Wednesday night.
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