Heading into tonight’s Republican debate in Ames, Iowa, the self-appointed arbiters of candidate viability had declared this a make-or-break opportunity for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. According to the media pundits, Pawlenty was barely treading water in the viability pool, and a poor performance tonight would likely put him under. As I have noted many times before, in the post-1968, media-dominated nominating process, it is the press, aided and abetted by the party activists, who have now assumed responsibility for winnowing the candidate field. With the Iowa straw poll only two days away, tonight was the last chance for Republican candidates to convince the media arbiters that they deserve to live for another debate. Never mind that Saturday’s straw poll has no real meaning in terms of selecting delegates. The media has deemed it an important signaling event, and the candidates must react accordingly.
So what happened? From my Ripton vantage point, here’s what I saw: Pawlenty is in deep trouble. He was on the offensive all night, focusing in particular on Representative Michele Bachmann, whose performance in the last Republican debate exceeded media expectations and therefore vaulted her into the top tier of candidates. Pawlenty’s job tonight was to puncture Bachmann’s balloon.
In my view, he failed. Although Pawlenty sought early on to take the high road – and even unloaded the best line of the night with his promise to mow the lawn of anyone who could document Obama’s economic plan to reduce joblessness (but he would only mow an acre of Romney’s lawn!) - in the end he came across as a candidate desperate to take Bachmann down. And she refused to take the bait, instead resolutely sticking to her principled arguments to rebut every one of Pawlenty’s attacks. She was particularly effective when asked about her statement that she believes a wife should be “submissive” to her husband. Say what you will about her command of history, Bachmann knows what she believes, and on the campaign trail consistency is half the battle. She wasn’t rattled by Pawlenty’s attacks, and in the end I think he came across as too eager to attack. He was political, and she was principled. It is unfortunate, but my guess is the media’s verdict will be that Pawlenty lost this debate and that his candidacy is in deep, deep trouble.
So, who did well? Newt Gingrich was the clear winner in the immediate context of the debate. He was focused, and came prepared to make the media – which has already tried unsuccessfully to winnow him from the field – as part of tonight’s story. In that he succeeded, with his obviously prepared response to Chris Wallace’s so predictable question regarding the resignation of Gingrich’s campaign staff and his funding problems. Gingrich effectively turned the tables on Wallace, making him the issue, much to the delight of the crowd. It was a reminder that pundits who have written him off forget that Gingrich has more experience on the national stage than any other Republican candidate, and that he was the man who orchestrated the Republican resurgence in Congress during the 1980’s. For the younger analysts who only know him as a political pundit, it is easy to dismiss him as a buffoon. The reality is that he is a formidable candidate who has a wealth of governing experience. Newt will not be winnowed before votes are actually cast.
If Newt won the debate on points, the bigger winner was Mitt Romney, who is obviously taking a page from Reagan’s 11th commandment to never criticize a fellow Republican. You can abide by that commandment when you are the frontrunner. Romney refused all night to get in the mud pile with his fellow Republicans and instead spent his entire time focusing relentlessly on President Obama. It is an excellent strategy, and at some point his fellow Republicans are going to have to take him on. I still believe Romney is vulnerable on the health care issue and on the flip-flopping charge more generally, but that vulnerability is not likely to be exposed until the Republican field is narrowed and an alternative candidate appears.
Who might that be? The two frontrunners were not on the stage tonight. One, of course, is Sarah Palin, whose strategy of not officially declaring her candidacy seems more prescient by the day. In another free publicity event, she took her bus tour back into Iowa today in time to inject herself into tonight’s debate, the latest reminder that she continues to garner free publicity without being subject to any of the criticism, nor financial restrictions, that declared candidates must endure. And to think that when she resigned as Alaska’s governor, the “experts” deemed her political career over. Instead, it turned out to be a brilliant move.
The second frontrunner is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has all but announced his candidacy, and whose formal announcement that he’s entering the race may come this Saturday – not coincidentally timed to detract from media coverage of the Ames straw poll. Although tonight’s debate participants stated that they welcomed Perry’s entrance into the race, they surely understood that it meant the end of the road for some of them.
The other newsworthy event from tonight’s debate was the first appearance on stage of Jon Huntsman, who has become something of a media darling and a favorite of the intelligentsia which, in most election years, means he will be winnowed from the field almost immediately. Huntsman’s performance tonight was solid, but it’s not clear it was strong enough to propel him into the top tier of candidates.
Finally, I should note the performance of Rick Santorum, who evidently realizes that the media has relegated him to the purgatory of second-tier status. Santorum was not shy about voicing his displeasure about not getting equal air time, and he was probably the most aggressive candidate in term of attacking his fellow Republicans. It was clear that he was trying to position himself as the conservative alternative to Romney, and that meant taking on Ron Paul and, to a lesser extent, Bachmann and Pawlenty. Unfortunately for Santorum, I don’t think the media will have the patience to allow his candidacy to develop.
Where does that leave the Republican race? Romney remains the frontrunner, and Bachmann continues to hold the media’s interest, if not their respect. Newt will survive. But the most important development will be Perry’s official announcement, which will subject him to an onslaught of negative media coverage.
Until then, it will be interesting to see how the media – the anointed arbiters of candidate viability – judge tonight’s debate. I’ll be on tomorrow with a summary of media reactions, and I’ll be posting regularly during Saturday’s straw poll. Meanwhile, if you saw tonight’s debate, send me your thoughts.