Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on October 18th?

Tonight's debate will likely reinforce Mitt Romney's status as the frontrunner in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. His closest competitor in the current polls, Herman Cain, was under heavy fire for his "9-9-9" tax plan. Being attacked for the first time, Cain seemed to lose his spark of charisma during the debate. Rick Perry continues to have difficulty articulating his thoughts, and he unwisely engaged in petty personal attacks against Romney. As Elephant Watcher observed yesterday, Perry should be focusing on his real competitor in Iowa and South Carolina: Herman Cain. Perry did himself no favors. Although Romney showed real annoyance (with Perry) for the first time, and although Romney took some heat, he generally remained calm and in control. If Republican voters want to choose the most "presidential" candidate, they will have no other choice than Romney.

The debate opened by asking every candidate to explain what they did not like about Herman Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan. The response was a difficult test for Cain: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and even Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney attacked his plan. Clearly they all view Cain as a larger threat, thanks to Cain's performance in recent polls. Cain attempted to address their concerns (about the national sales tax component of the plan), but was overwhelmed. The candidates did damage to Cain right out of the gate.

Next, for the seventh time, Romney was attacked on Romneycare. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich brought some new attacks against Romneycare, based on the failings of the Massachusetts plan. Romney emerged from the exchanges with confidence, though he did not do as good a job drawing distinctions between Romneycare and Obamacare. Perhaps he has done it in so many previous debates that he felt the need to avoid being repetitive. This was a mistake; many viewers simply have not watched previous debates. Romney acquitted himself well, but he took some heat. This was yet another example of how Romney's refusal to disavow Romneycare is a gift that keeps on giving for his opponents.

The debate got very heated when the subject turned to illegal immigration. Perry, still apparently believing that he is competing in the first tier, issued personal attacks against Romney. Perry accused Romney of being soft on illegal immigration by hiring illegal immigrants; it was the same negative attack (referring to a lawn mowing company) that failed to work for Rudy Giuliani when he tried it four years ago. Romney responded well, but was clearly annoyed by Perry's insistence on interrupting him. It was probably the most contentious moment of any debate so far. The audience, a very pro-Romney crowd from Nevada, agreed with Romney. Later in the debate, Perry brought up the issue yet again, and was booed by the audience.

Michele Bachmann remained tangential to the debate. For example, after the heated illegal immigration exchange between Romney and Perry, Bachmann claimed that the person who had real troubles was Barack Obama, because his aunt and uncle are illegal immigrants.

The Nevada crowd received plenty of pandering by the candidates on the issue of Yucca Mountain, a potential respository for nuclear waste. Nevadans oppose having nuclear waste at the site. Ron Paul, Perry, and Romney agreed. Romney did the best pandering, however.

Throughout the debate, Rick Santorum stuck to his theme of faith and family. He is waiting to pick up the pieces of the Evangelical vote in Iowa, whenever it might become available. Ron Paul was more rational in this debate (by his own standards), and was repeatedly applauded for his statements on the economy. The other candidates ignored him. Newt Gingrich did well and received plenty of applause, but once again he refused to tangle with the candidates who are ahead of him in the polls.

Jon Huntsman, so often invisible, was literally impossible to see tonight: He boycotted the debate. He was not mentioned by anyone, including the debate moderator, who let his absence go without comment.