Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on August 11th?

The third primary debate was held tonight. Which candidates helped themselves, and who ended the night in a worse position?

Tonight was Jon Huntsman's first appearance at a primary debate. Unlike Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, who offered "red meat to the base" during their first appearances, Huntsman just fit in. Being a firebrand is simply not in Huntsman's personality, and he never attacked Mitt Romney, the man standing in his way in New Hampshire. Huntsman also suffered from receiving few questions. It's still unclear whether Huntsman is willing to do what's necessary to make a genuine run for the presidency.

Herman Cain, whose debate appearances are essentially the whole of his campaign, had trouble breaking out from the crowd, just as he did at the June 13th debate. The "Tea Party candidate" focus appears to have gone entirely over to Bachmann and Rick Perry, who is not yet in the race. Cain may fear his moment has passed.

Newt Gingrich, another candidate whose campaign relies solely on the debates, also missed an opportunity to make a real splash tonight. He made no missteps, but he did not effectively engage the other candidates. As we've observed before, Newt Gingrich needs to go on the offensive to leverage his debate talent. Rather than engaging the other candidates, he spent more time attacking the debate moderators.

The main event of the debate was the battle between Minnesotans Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty was more willing to engage with an opponent, and he wisely stuck to his record. At first, rather than attacking Bachmann personally, he contrasted his executive experience with hers. He was fairly tough when he attacked her "non-existent record."

Bachmann struck back with specific attacks against Pawlenty's policies as governor of Minnesota, and it was clear that she had prepared for this debate battle. And fortunately for Bachmann, the crowd was on her side, as her fans packed the room. When Pawlenty responded, he was more harsh, accusing Bachmann of having a history of making false statements. The crowd was not pleased. Even if Pawlenty had the better of the argument, Bachmann may have appeared the winner to many observers, based on the crowd reaction. It's clear Republicans do not wish to see the candidates go too negative (against each other) just yet.

As one might expect, Mitt Romney was asked about his defense of Romneycare again. Once more, he deflected the question with his well-rehearsed argument about the differences between Romneycare and Obamacare. The moderators seemed more willing to argue with him than the moderators of the June 13th debate. But a debate is really about the candidates. Pawlenty did attack Romney, but he was not able to do any damage, and it did not develop into an extended duel like his conflict with Bachmann.

Ron Paul seemed more awkward and uncomfortable during the debate than normal, yet he was the recipient of a surprisingly large amount of airtime. Poor Rick Santorum, who made a complaint about not getting enough questions, received the distinction of having the Gary Johnson / Mike Gravel moment, and it always makes the whining candidate look smaller. But Santorum did get far more opportunities than usual to get his message out, and he was stronger than in previous debates.

There were no game-changing moments. Romney was likely pleased that he got the opportunity to showcase his economic views. Rick Perry was likely pleased that two of his main competitors in Iowa (Bachmann and Pawlenty) were attacking each other. Indeed, Perry may have been the real winner of the debate.