In the past twelve hours the six men running for the Republican presidential nomination have debated not once but twice.
Below is our combined winners and losers from the two debates. Agree or disagree? That is your right; this country is all about liberty. (Ron Paul homage!) The comments section is open for business.
* Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor glided to a victory in Saturday’s debate as none of his rivals seemed willing to challenge him in any sustained way. (Why not? We have no idea.)
That changed in the Sunday morning debate as both former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went at Romney — largely on his attempts to cast himself as a outsider to the political process. (Gingrich dismissed Romney’s rhetoric on that front as “pious baloney”. We prefer fried baloney. Delicious fried baloney.)
Those moments when he was under attack were some of the worst for Romney in either debate; he is still an awkward presence when challenged (“Let me complete!”) and doesn’t like doing it. (One break from that tendency: Romney handled questions about his commitment — or lack thereof — to gay rights very deftly.)
But, the attacks against Romney just weren’t sustained enough to keep him out of his comfort zone for long or change the governing dynamic in New Hampshire or anywhere else. And that’s a win for him.
* Jon Huntsman: In both debates, the former Utah governor felt relevant to the conversation — a marked change from some of the past gatherings.
And, Huntsman repeatedly tried to step above the fray — painting in broad strokes about the need to come together in politics rather than break apart. Huntsman’s best moment in any debate came when he pushed back on Romney’s bashing over his service in the Obama Administration — noting that he has and always will put country first.
Huntsman’s performances should help him win over undecided independent voters in New Hampshire. But it’s hard to see his middle-of-the-road messaging winning him much beyond that. Still, a win is a win.
* David Gregory:Gregory, the host of “Meet the Press”, delivered a command performance as moderator this morning. He asked pointed questions, tried to force the candidates to answer them (no easy feat) and allowed moments of genuine disagreement between the candidates to play out. A job very well done. (Full disclosure: I am a paid contributor for MSNBC. Do what you will with that knowledge.)
* Super PACs: All the chatter about what they are doing and why helps the people staffing them make the case to donors of their relevance. Ah, unintended consequences!
* Ron Paul: The Texas Republican Congressman got plenty of time to talk in each of the debates. But that was the problem. Paul proved — again — that he really is off on an island in this race. His views are simply nowhere near the mainstream of the Republican party. Like, not even in the same zip code.
That’s all and well good if you are already a devoted Paulite — RON PAUL — but less good if you want Paul to actually be the GOP’s nominee in 2012.
Paul has created a political trap for himself. His libertarian views on everything from the Fed to American involvement in foreign wars is what has won him such unceasingly loyal support. It’s also what makes his growth in the race virtually impossible. The twin debates over the last 12 hours highlighted that fact.
* Newt Gingrich: The old Gingrich — chastising moderators, delivering droll quips — was back in these two debates. And there is obviously a segment of voters who really respond that Gingrich.
But, it’s far from presidential and, ultimately, is a sort of cul-de-sac politically that as recently as a month ago Gingrich looked like he had found a way out of.
Gingrich and his team almost certainly believe they scored a direct hit on Romney and super PACs — a hobbyhorse for the former Speaker — but we are always skeptical of how much process arguments matter to actual voters.
Gingrich had his moments — he always does in debates — but overall he seemed too willing to lapse back into a rhetorical style that might win him a battle or two but won’t win him the war.
* Real life: We are continually amazed at how much the candidates struggle to answer non-political questions. Asked last night what they would be doing if they weren’t debating on a Saturday night, the candidates reacted as if they had just been asked to cite the one thing they hated most about Ronald Reagan.
Perry went first and said he would be at a shooting range, which, in retrospect, might have been the best answer. Gingrich followed by saying he would be watching the “college basketball championship” and then corrected himself to say the “football” game. Romney went along with that answer as did Santorum. The problem? The national championship football game is Monday night.
Reporters spend lots of time wondering why people dislike politicians so much. It’s because politicians don’t seem to get it. The “Saturday night” question made that point crystal clear.
(Sidebar: This is exactly why we favor lightning rounds, “this or that” questions etc. Voters want to know what the person they are voting for is really like, not just where they stand on the policy issues of the day.)
* Mitt-cam: We continue to agitate for a camera — we would take a web cam — that allows viewers to watch Romney at all times. The “I am not laughing on the inside” laugh, the knowing smile, the hands in suit pockets when being attacked. This would catch on.