Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on November 22nd?

Tonight's debate was a split decision: Newt Gingrich decisively won the first half, and Mitt Romney just as decisively won the second half.

The debate focused on national security and foreign policy. That's favorable turf for candidates like Romney and (especially) Gingrich, and unfavorable turf for Herman Cain. Cain did not make any big gaffes, but he often seemed on the verge of doing so. By contrast, Gingrich was right at home, particularly during the first half of the debate. Gingrich opened the debate by blasting Ron Paul, who said that terrorism should be treated as a criminal matter because it worked in the case of Timothy McVeigh. To great applause, Gingrich countered that McVeigh's terrorist attack succeeded, and that he would rather stop the attacks from occurring in the first place.

Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum all avoided major gaffes as well. But they seemed to be increasingly irrelevant to the conversation. Months ago, Perry would have been lucky to have delivered an unremarkable performance, because at least it wouldn't have been a bad one. But now, so deep in the hole he made for himself, such a performance won't do. Perry is lost.

During the first half of the debate, Romney couldn't match Gingrich. At one point, Romney and Jon Huntsman argued about the level of troops in Afghanistan. It was a draw, but arguing with a low-polling candidate is only useful if you obliterate him. By engaging with Huntsman, Romney only raised Huntsman's profile. Overall, Huntsman did well, but his long-awaited improvement in debate has come too late. Huntsman just doesn't have enough time left to build up steam.

During the second half of the debate, the dynamic seemed to shift. Romney gave stronger answers, and Gingrich, though he still did well, began to show signs of vulnerability. When asked about illegal immigration, Gingrich gave an answer that suggested making illegal immigrants "legal" under certain circumstances, such as if they had lived in America for a long time, were members of a church, or had ties to their local community. Bachmann seemed perplexed by Gingrich's apparently (and suddenly) soft stance on illegal immigration.

At that point, Romney jumped into the fray. He emphasized his support for legal immigration, particularly for highly-skilled and highly-educated immigrants, such as those who earn advanced engineering degrees in the United States. Romney then suggested that it was important to halt illegal immigration by not creating "magnets" for it. When the moderator asked if that was what Gingrich was doing, Romney avoided addressing the specifics of Gingrich's plan and said that any widescale plan to make illegal immigrants "legal" would amount to amnesty, and it would be a step in the wrong direction. Gingrich did not appear to know how to defend himself.

It was the only time in the debate in which Gingrich and Romney tangled. It was not a heated exchange by any means, but it has the potential to harm Gingrich. Time will tell whether Bachmann, Romney, and other candidates call Gingrich's stance on illegal immigration into question. Recall that Perry's perceived softness on illegal immigration helped doom his candidacy.

Aside from that issue, Gingrich performed well, and he is likely to further bleed support from Cain. The question is whether the Tea Party will accept Gingrich after taking a closer look at his platform.