Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on September 7th?

Perhaps the first "true" debate of the primary season was held tonight, with all of the candidates participating (barring a late entry by Chris Christie or Sarah Palin). Who used the debate most effectively, and who found himself damaged by it?

The main event, of course, was Rick Perry's initiation into the race. Since Perry was in the lead of all national primary polls going into the event, expectations were high. It's difficult to stand out when there are seven other candidates sharing the stage. Perry's performance was mixed. He appeared disciplined and presidential most of the time. Despite it being his first debate, he seemed fairly comfortable and affable. He was not as smooth as Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, but he was not awkward, either. But he spent most of the debate on the defensive due to the attacks against him--sometimes by the candidates, and sometimes by the moderators.

Perry waded into treacherous waters on the issue of Social Security, which he repeatedly and emphatically called a "Ponzi scheme" as it currently operates. Instead of attacking a system so many voters rely on, he should have said that he would focus on fixing it. That's essentially what Romney did, getting the better of the argument. Perry's remarks may well come back to haunt him, and it was the one moment during the debate when Perry appeared too hot-tempered to be electable.

Oddly, Michele Bachmann did not go on the attack against Perry as she had against Tim Pawlenty in last month's debate. She missed the opportunity to cast doubt on Perry's conservatism. The debate moderators seemed to give Bachmann fewer questions, but her choice to give Perry a pass was inexplicable.

Romney decided to engage with Perry when prompted, but did not go out of his way to attack. Instead, he wisely focused on attacking Obama. Nevertheless, the debate opened with an extended duel between Romney and Perry. It was a draw. Perry and Romney were both well-prepared and anticipated each other's talking points. Later, Romney appeared magnanimous when he was asked about Perry's unpopular vaccine program; instead of attacking Perry, Romney suggested that Perry's heart was in the right place but probably would have done things differently given a second chance.

Once again, Romney was questioned about his healthcare reform in Massachusetts, commonly known as "Romneycare." This time the questioning was even more extensive, particularly on the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase healthcare. Romney defended himself well, arguing that in Massachusetts there was a problem with "free riders," but that he would repeal Obamacare. The other candidates engaged Romney, but they did not seem to have specific, prepared avenues of attack.

The remaining candidates struggled to make themselves relevant in what is more and more a two-man race. An interesting moment occurred when Gingrich said he would not allow the liberal media to manipulate Republicans into attacking each other; he encouraged the audience by saying everyone on the stage would be united in preventing Barack Obama from getting a second term. It was the biggest applause line of the night.

Ron Paul took the opportunity to occasionally attack Perry. The first time it occurred, Perry struck back, which was unwise, as it gave Paul time to reply. Later, the candidates ignored Paul and allowed him to marginalize himself.

Jon Huntsman was not a potent force in the debate, but he was much stronger than during his first appearance in August. He even took a few opportunities to attack Romney, his competitor in New Hampshire. But if voters do not view Huntsman as a real contender to win, few will notice, as he is too understated to grab attention.

Herman Cain was also more polished than before, but he had few opportunities to make an impact. Rick Santorum was in the same position.

Who was helped by the debate? Mitt Romney will likely be viewed as a more electable, presidential-seeming candidate than Rick Perry. Perry defended himself well during most of the debate, but the exchange on Social Security and Perry's hesitant, halting answers toward the end of the debate could lower his stock. Bachmann's apparent irrelevance likely made her another candidate harmed by the debate.