As I noted earlier, pre-debate attention on the New Hampshire debate focused on the first face-off between Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. So how did they do?
Pawlenty had a bad moment, a very bad one. When asked about his crack about “Obamneycare,” he flinched, refusing to repeat his attack with Romney on the stage. In a nutshell, it defined the problem with his candidacy: Voters don’t think he is tough enough. That said, he turned in a strong performance in the rest of the debate, giving a solid answer on right-to-work laws that drew applause and on federal and state constitutional recognition that we are a “nation founded under God.” On immigration, he played to the exclusionists by asserting that “birthright citizenship” should be repealed and is an invention of the courts. He needs a brush up course on the 14th Amendment. To his credit, he was a bold voice on foreign policy.
Romney, in large part because Pawlenty didn’t press him, got through the RomneyCare question unscathed. He insisted that his plan was different than ObamaCare because it did not raid Medicare, raise taxes and burden states with the same plan. The answer may not satisfy activists, but unless someone can pin Romney down and draw blood, he may be able to skate through the race. Will Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) be that figure? Or Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who’s nearly certain to enter the race)?
There was some news made Monday night, as Bachmann declared her candidacy and showed herself to be a serious candidate. She often invoked her congressional experience (voting against TARP and against raising the debt limit and introducing a bill to repeal Obamacare). She gave an impassioned speech on the right to life, but said she wouldn’t go into states seeking to repeal their laws on gay marriage. As a federal matter, however, she would support a constitutional amendment if the Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t survive judicial scrutiny.
Newt Gingrich, true to his stubborn tone deafness, went back to the well on Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. He insisted that if the American people don’t support it, then the GOP “should slow down.” Once again, he could not resist undermining the entire Republican House caucus that led on a tough issue. (Romney suggested that all the Republicans had plans of various types on entitlement reform while Obama had none.)
The remaining candidates -- Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul -- proved themselves to be minor figures, playing to the far right but lacking specificity or gravitas.
Meanwhile, moderator John King distinguished himself as the worst moderator in the history of televised debates. He interrupted and cut off the candidates, making both himself and time limits an unwelcomed intrusion. He very annoyingly pestered the candidates with “this or that” — Elvis or Johnny Cash, Connan or Leno, etc. Had he not used up precious time during the substantive part of the debate, this might have been excusable. (His curious grunting will be fodder for Saturday Night Live spoofing.)
What was not excusable was conducting a debate for one hour and forty minutes before asking a single foreign policy question. When the questions came form reporters and audience members, the slant was pro-isolationist. Unfortunately, most of the candidates played to the pull-up-the-drawbridge crowd. Romney defended keeping the troops into Afghanistan until the generals said the conditions on the ground permitted us to pull out; however, he then gratuitously threw in the remark that we shouldn’t go to war for freedom in Afghanistan. (Psst: We went there to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda.) Pawlenty came out strongly on airstrikes on Yemen, reminding us that al-Qaeda had killed 3000 Americans and would kill many more if it could. Asked about Libya, Bachmann claimed we had no “vital national interest.” She again flashed her credentials (this time as a member of the House Intelligence Committee), arguing that we don’t know how many al-Qaeda members are allied with the rebels. Even Gingrich, usually an internationalist, went isolationist, calling for a pull out from Libya. Maybe the Republicans need John Bolton in the race.
Had Pawlenty not stumbled on the Obamneycare question, he might have come out the winner — but, despite the rest of his showing, that may be the soundbite that dominates the debate. Bachmann showed herself to be more than capable of joining the grown-up table, distinguishing herself from the lesser candidates. And Romney showed himself to be polished and prepared. As the frontrunner, he lost no ground and therefore comes out the winner in the debate.