Tag Archives: Republican debate; 2012 Republican nomination

Live Blogging the Arizona Debate

We are on. Join in.

As always, it’s fun to see who actually sings the national anthem. Newt never does.  Mitt always does.

And they are true to form tonight – Mitt letting loose, while Newt is stonefaced.

John King – the fastest speaking moderator in the business.

Rick is smiling as he speaks of positive solutions to the Apocalypse as spelled out in the book of Revelations.

Right off the bat, as I predicted, Newt works the energy angle.

Question 1:  how to bring down the growing national debt?

Rick looks like he’s clenching his teeth again.  Not a good sign.  But he hits the major points.

John King invites Mitt to attack Rick….if you ask, I suppose I’ll oblige….

Mitt – I’m a businessman, not a political hack like Rick.

Rick is obviously going to be prepared to respond to Mitt’s attacks.  Mitt is a tax raiser….Rick is not.  Period.

Mitt is in top destroy mode. He is out to crush Rick.  Clearly he has been watching the polls.

Newt – offshore drilling.  Energy, energy, energy…

Ron Paul – love this guy.  Why did you call Rick Santorum a fake?  “Because he’s a fake!”  Even Rick has to laugh at Ron, which may be a sign of just how far Ron’s stock has fallen.  No one is taking him seriously, even when he attacks you…  Rick is still smiling, even as Ron eviscerates him…..

I confess that I’m not entirely sure why Paul has decided to target Rick, unless he’s hoping to be the not-Mitt candidate.

Paul’s medication has kicked in tonight.  He’s well rested and it shows. Feisty, and quick on the response.

Mitt doesn’t wait long to raise the immigration issue.  But why someone doesn’t point out he had to balance the budget by state law in Massachusetts is beyond me. He keeps claiming credit for it.

Newt still hasn’t attacked the media. Is this his opportunity?

Whenever Newt says, “There’s a different question”, he’s ready to pounce.  He plays his immigration card in the guise of talking about the failing of the national government.  Immigration plays well here, and Newt uses it effectively….

Rick – Mitt is an earmarker, and a hypocrite to boot for attacking Rick for earmarks.  Mitt is ready to reel off Rick’s earmark record, you wait.  Rick is trying to inoculate himself against the coming earmark attack.  the crowd doesn’t buy Rick’s extended defense of earmarks, and neither does Mitt.  Hard to make a case that is based on everyone in Congress does it.

Mitt my earmark was for the Olympics. Yours was for the bridge for nowhere.  Now Rick is mad.   And Mitt is getting prissy again.  Newt is winning by doing nothing….

Newt is going to step in to clean up this mess.   There are good earmarks and bad earmarks, and Newt makes it all clear.  Ron joins in.  Not clear that this food fight over earmarks is really helping anyone.  Let’s move on, please.

The auto bailout.  Defend your position.  Presumably this matters to Michigan voters.  (Notice how Mitt responds to jeers from the crowd – it’s what we call “rabbit ears”…    (Newt seems pretty relaxed here).  Mitt says he was a traditional bankruptcy for the auto industry.  I’m not sure people are following this, but I think Mitt’s answer is effective.  Rick does not.

John King: “It’s a tough issue.”  Newt:  No, it’s not. Newt attaboys Mitt, but still gets applause.

Ron Paul wants consistency on bailouts.   He uses the bailout to defend the sanctity of contracts, and liberty too.  Yadayadayada.

First Break

Rick spent too much time defending his record here and got sucked into an earmark foodfight, that as a member of Congress, he can’t win.  Romney was personally irritating, as always, but again he’s done his homework  and came prepared to demolish Rick, just as he did to Newt before Florida.   Ron is amusing, but irrelevant for the most part.  Newt is doing well, but he’s also back in the scenery a bit here….

Social Issue could get things going.  Newt is ready to attack the elite media…..and here it comes!  Newt sets the tone here which is to turn the issue away from Republican views and toward Obama’s views toward “infanticide” and religious exemptions.

You saw this coming – Santorum on the spot for his social views.  He’s not going to back down on this.  I’m never sure how his evident passion on this issue plays – is he too strident for some voters?

Rick likes Ron’s “pills are guns” analogy…

Mitt has really been trying to burnish his social conservative credentials tonight – I’m surprised the others are letting him get away with this.  Let’s see if Rick takes on his record as governor….

Newt takes up the cudgel here.  Remember, Newt’s audience here is southern evangelicals and Tea Party populists…

Great comment from RStrange – it’s hard to believe women are enjoying watching the Republican candidates bashing contraceptive use.  Remember, Rick and Newt have both had gender discrepancies in their polling…

Paul and Mitt are ganging up on Rick, and once again he is trying to parse answers.  The crowd turns….but this has been a pro-Mitt crowd from the get go. (Did he purchase their admission?)  They are even booing Rick attacking Romneycare…… the crowd is fixed!

Mitt is skating here, and Rick can’t do much about it….Again, it helps to have a great research team behind you.  The best debate coaching money can buy…

Finally, someone call Mitt on the phony balanced budget claim.  Rick is on fire…..note that Mitt skillfully blunts the attack by moving Rick to the Spector issue.  too convoluted an explanation by Rick here I think….. neither one of them is really doing themselves any good in this exchange.

Let’s move on to immigration….    (Rick Perry is holding Callista’s hand – turnabout is fair play)

Is Newt still on the stage?  yes he is, with another so simple it must make sense response for curing the border problem.  The Good Newt is back.

Not sure anyone gets very excited by “e-verify” – lots of people just don’t think it works as well as guns and fences.

It’s easy pickings here to back the Arizona law a few days before the Arizona primary.

Newt is finally picking up some steam here….again, he needs to impact voters on Super Tuesday….start with baby debate steps….so he is more likely to soft pedal the immigration issue in order to pick up some Latino vote.

Break II.

Easy one word answer to “define yourself:”  How about: “Presidential”

Santorum fought back a bit here to regain some ground.  But although he scored points against Mitt, it’s not clear to me he’s helped himself so far.  Mitt took some shots, but he’s still ahead on points.  Newt has been the best debater (shades of old Newt) but he hasn’t gotten much air time.  Paul has had some great one liners, and scored heavily against Rick early, but….. .

Courage?  Does Rick mean courageous?  And Newt as cheerful?   I still say presidential was the word of choice.

Did Mitt just mention “emotional” in the context of debating women in the military?  Can he be any more condescending?  How are women going to react to that?

If this Newt had showed up before Florida we might have seen a different outcome.  Of course, no one is attacking him tonight.

Rick already has a gender problem, so he needs to be careful in his response here on military service for women.

Newt is primed for the Iran nuclear issue (he’s got Adelson’s money at stake here!)   He’s not going to say “I’ll stop Israel” taking out Iran’s nukes.

King cuts this off too quickly – I wanted to hear Paul attack Newt on this.

Mitt ends every statement with some version of “If you elect me, that won’t happen, if you reelect the President it will…”

AS you see Rick work himself up on this issue, do you really want him with his finger on the nuclear button?

Here’s where Ron Paul reminds everyone why he can’t win the Republican nomination.  He doesn’t quite grasp the logic of nuclear deterrence.

“We talked to the Soviets” for 50 years, while the Iron Curtain stood in place…..

Did Rick say how he would actually solve the Syria problem?  If so, I missed it.

Newt harping on energy once again. This is a major part of his plan to resurrect his campaign.   He makes overthrowing Syria seem so simple.  Rick agrees. If only it was… .

Paul tries again, this time pushing the economic costs of overseas intervention.   My guess it won’t play any better than the moral and constitutional issues did with Republican voters.

Rick’s candid admission that he made a mistake backing NCLB for the sake of the team actually seems to have attracted some applause.

Newt is on his game tonight.  But again, it’s easier to do when everyone has counted you out.  And he only has one debate, not a dozen, to debate his way back into this race.   But he’s on a roll here with his riff on education…..

Newt has replaced Bachmann as the designated laugher in reaction to Ron’s one-liner’s …  Ron isn’t letting Rick off the hook here.  Still not sure why he’s serving as Mitt’s handmaiden.  Is this an effort to get Mitt to put Rand Paul on the ticket?


Last debate section went to Newt.  Mitt has receded a bit, but it doesn’t matter because Rick didn’t really step up to fill the void.  The pro-Mitt audience here is a reminder of why organization matters.

Last Question:  What’s the biggest misconception the public has about you?

Paul: That I can’t win.  Sadly, that’s not a misconception.  He can’t win.  Outside of a brokered convention.

Gingrich:  If there was one thing that I want the American people to know about me is what I accomplished while speaker….track record of getting things done.

Mitt:  As always, he’s not answering the question.  This guy is fundamentally unlikable, when you get right down to it.  Once in a while you see flashes of the guy who grew up expecting people to do what he wants.   Not a pretty sight.

Rick:  not really answering the question, but I guess he’s saying he’s more electable than people think.

And that’s it.  Time for the Spin!

Borger is up first with Rick and the Rickettes! Is Rick, Jr. wearing a sweater vest?  Oh yeah!

I wonder how kids feel when they are essentially props in a campaign?  Look at those smiling faces – painted on!

Now to Paul – he says he’s in second place in delegates.  Formally speaking, counting conservatively, I still don’t think that’s true.  I think Newt is ahead of him.  But, no matter.  Remember, for a guy making an argument that he’s most electable, the fact is he hasn’t won anything yet – not even Maine.

My quick impressions:  given the hype, no one really stood out as having an effective performance.  Of the four, Gingrich was the strongest performer, bringing back shades of the old Newt.   The problem is it is not clear that one debate is enough to change the media narrative here which is writing him off.  Perhaps it played better in some of the Super Tuesday events and will give him a boost over Santorum there.  If so, that’s what he hoped for.   The big loser in my mind was Santorum.  He stumbled early by getting dragged into the details of a debate over Arlen Spector and earmarks.  He sounded defensive.  He picked it up considerably in the second half, and turned the tables a bit on Mitt with the critique of balanced budgets and Romneycare, but he didn’t clearly differentiate himself from Mitt. nor perform so well as to give voters in Michigan and Arizona a reason to choose him over Mitt.  That’s what he needed to do, and I just don’t think he capitalized on his moment in the sun.

Mitt was Mitt – well prepared, but in a way that demonstrated that his strengths are his weaknesses.  He has money, a strong opposition research team, the organization to pack the hall – but he’s not very likeable.  Again, he showed flashes of the “I’m rich and therefore you have to play by my rules” Mitt that is hard to like.  I think he did enough damage to Rick here to perhaps squeeze out wins in both Michigan and Arizona, but once again I saw no evidence that he can expand his support into the Tea Party/evangelical crowd.  There’s just no connection there.

Finally, Ron Paul: Good night for him, but he’s running in the wrong nominating race when it comes to foreign policy.  This isn’t to say he’s wrong – only that his isolationist views (I know, it’s “non-interventionist”) just aren’t going to fly with this voting crowd.  Otherwise, he was entertaining, he was pithy, he hit the usual talking points but with high energy.  All in all a good performance for him.

(David Gergen was just on CNN arguing the contraceptive issues and other reproductive concerns drive the gender gap in presidential voting in recent decades.  This is completely wrong – the gender gap is rooted in different views toward security and social welfare – not so-called “women’s” issues.   Shame on David.)

Good job tonight – thanks for the great participation! I’ll be on tomorrow with the post-mortem…..meanwhile, everyone pour a scotch, kick back and relax….


DC Deadlock, the Perils of Paul in Iowa, and Tonight’s Debate

So little time, so much to blog about.  Today’s topics: deadlock in DC, the Perils of Paul in Iowa, and tonight’s debate.

To begin, as I predicted in this earlier post, the Obama administration has backed away from its veto threat in response to changes Congress made to the detainee provisions in the 2012 military authorization bill. Given the already tepid nature of that threat in the administration’s Statement of Policy (SAP), I didn’t think it would take much to persuade Obama to take the veto threat off the table.  As you might imagine, party purists on the Left are again voicing their displeasure with the President’s willingness to compromise, and human rights and civil libertarian groups continue to argue the bill cedes too much power to the military.  But although the concessions the congressional conference committee made in response to the administration’s objections may not have appeased the Left, they were evidently enough to provide political cover to Obama, and he is going to sign this bill.  This is another illustration of something that I refer to often on this blog, but which – surprisingly – is not accepted by all political scientists: that presidential power is really nothing more than persuasion, and that in practice, persuasion takes place through bargaining.  The negotiations I’ve described here regarding the military authorization bill are the latest illustration of this fact.  Purists, in contrast, view the exercise of presidential power as part of a zero-sum game, where the president either wins by getting everything he wants, or he loses.  But that’s not how it works in a system of shared powers. To get anything, presidents need to be prepared to give something up.

Meanwhile, another congressional donnybrook is brewing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is now threatening to hold up the Senate vote on an omnibus appropriations bill until he gets Republican agreement to pass an extension of the payroll tax cut due to expire at the end of  the year. House Republicans are supporting their own version of a payroll tax cut extension that includes provisions expediting approval of the Keystone pipeline project.  So far, the Republican bill is a non-starter with Senate Democrats who are hoping to leverage the threat of a government shutdown to force Republican concessions.  In response, House Republicans have gone ahead an introduced their own omnibus spending bill. Their hope is to pass the bill by Friday, thus putting the screws on Reid instead, since Senate Democrats will be forced to either accede to Republican wishes or accept responsibility for failing to pass the spending bill and risking another government shutdown.

This latest round of legislative brinkmanship is sure to bring out the handwringers among the chattering class (and among academics too!) who will cite it as still another example of how our political system is broken.  As with the debt default crisis, however, I think this instead is the logical result of having two evenly matched, ideologically cohesive parties, each controlling one house of Congress.  As long as both sides see it is in their mutual interest to compromise, they will do so, but not before driving Congress to the legislative precipice in order to wring out every last feasible concession.  In this instance, neither Republicans nor Democrats see their brand name benefit by opposing a payroll tax cut, and so they will reach agreement on doing so.  Similarly, there’s not much payoff in shutting down the government, so I expect either some compromise on the omnibus spending bill, probably by decoupling it from consideration of the payroll tax extension, or a short-term spending extension while debate continues.   Obama, at least publicly, seems to want nothing to do with this confrontation, and who can blame him?  He received little credit for negotiating the debt default compromise.

It’s a messy way to legislate, to be sure.  But we should get used to it because, barring a return to unified government, it’s here to stay.

Turning to electoral politics, what are we to make of this Rasmussen automated poll of likely caucus voters in Iowa, which was in the field on Tuesday?  (Rasmussen surveyed 750 likely caucus voters. The margin of sampling error is +/- 4 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence)

2012 Iowa Republican Caucus

12/13/2011 11/15/2011 10/19/2011 8/31/2011 8/4/2011
Mitt Romney 23% 19% 21% 17% 21%
Newt Gingrich 20% 32% 9% 2% 5%
Ron Paul 18% 10% 10% 14% 16%
Jon Huntsman 5% 2% 2% 3% 2%
Herman Cain Withdrew 13% 28% 4% 4%
Rick Perry 10% 6% 7% 29% 12%
Michele Bachmann 9% 6% 8% 18% 22%
Rick Santorum 6% 5% 4% 4% Not Polled
Some other candidate 2% 1% 4% 0% 7%
Not sure 8% 6% 8% 10% 0%

Romney, who has been fading in most recent Iowa polls, is ahead here, albeit with a lead that is within the poll’s margin of error. Rasmussen does not provide crosstabs to nonsubscribers, so I can’t check the poll’s internals to gauge what lies behind the results. But a quick read of the topline results suggests that the real story is not that Romney is gaining in Iowa – it’s that some of Gingrich’s support has moved to Paul.  More generally, we see a tightening of the race in Iowa, almost certainly reflecting the media blitz targeting Gingrich issued by the Romney, Perry and Bachmann camps.  Note that all three candidates have registered small gains since the last Rasmussen poll.

In a video piece we have up at the Middlebury website, my colleague Bert Johnson argues that what pundits perceive as “momentum” coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire is really a function of the various factions solving a coordination problem; in effect, they use these early contests to decide which candidate to coalesce behind.   So, if there are two factions in Iowa – say, social conservatives and fiscal moderates – each group has to decide which candidate to support, or risk dissipating their influence.  To put this another way the reason we seem to think that a candidate gains momentum coming out of Iowa (or New Hampshire) is really a function of the winnowing process that eliminates second-tier candidates.   Their support has to go somewhere.   With only about 20 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, however, potential voters seem in no hurry to solve their coordination problem, to use Bert’s term. This is particularly true among social conservatives, who seem to have split their support among Gingrich, Perry, Santorum and Bachmann.  Newt has to hope he can get those voters to coalesce behind him.  Paul, meanwhile, draws his strongest support among independents, weak Democrats, and young voters.  It’s not clear whether he has hit his ceiling or not.

If the race is tightening in Iowa, it makes tonight’s Sioux City debate all the more crucial (and yes, I’ll be live blogging!)  The key question will be whether Newt now goes on the attack against Paul and Romney, and whether Perry, Santorum and Bachmann can turn in a second straight strong performance and move into the top four  to avoid getting culled from the field.

The debate is at 9 on Fox.  I’ll be on a bit earlier to set the table.  It is potentially the most significant debate of the campaign season to date so I hope those of you who aren’t studying for an exam  (you know who you are) can join me online.

What To Look For In Tonight’s Republican Debate

Two significant political events will take place during the next two days. The first is tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library featuring eight Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination.  The debate begins at 8 p.m. eastern time. The second is President Obama’s nationally-televised “jobs” speech, scheduled to air tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Let me focus here on the debate, and turn to the President’s speech in a separate post. Labor Day signifies that we are about halfway through the invisible primary – the roughly 10-month period in which the field of candidates that will compete in the series of caucuses and primaries is established. As always, there are two stories to follow: what the media says is happening in the nominating process, and what is actually happening.  With that in mind, let’s look at the Pollster.com composite polling date here.

The polling trends prompt at least four observations. First, despite being declared by several major news outlets as the “winner” of the first two major Republican debates – largely because he refused to engage in much give and take and thus appeared “presidential” – Mitt Romney’s polling support hasn’t inched upward at all.  Indeed, it dropped in the aftermath of Rick Perry’s entrance into the race.  This has to be somewhat troubling to Romney, particularly since he entered the race with relatively high name recognition due to his failed 2008 bid.  It suggests relatively soft support among potential voters.  Even more problematic, he does much worse in polling of registered voters, as opposed to surveys of all adults, suggesting his candidacy is actually weaker than the composite polling indicates.

In contrast, Rick Perry has shot to the top of the national polls, with a bullet, since formally entering the race. He leads Romney by 6-8% among all adults, but his lead doubles in surveys among registered voters.  Right now, in fact, if surveys are to be believed the race for the Republican nomination isn’t even close. This despite the obligatory media efforts to both a) take down the front-runner and b) to establish an unflattering candidate caricature.  In Perry’s case, the stereotype is that he is “dumb”.  This puts him in line behind a succession of stupid Republicans, dating back to Gerald Ford (really more clumsy than dumb), Ronald Reagan (described by Clark Clifford as an “amiable dunce”) and George W. Bush (“Shrub”), all of whom succeeded in becoming president despite their lack of intelligence. (Don’t get me started on Ike!) Perry has to hope he can somehow live up to his predecessors’ profound stupidness.  Tonight is as good a night as any to demonstrate that he lacks what it takes to be characterized as “smart.”  The key issue is whether Romney reacts to his lukewarm polling and decides to directly engage Perry, or insists on trying to sail above the fray. Much has been made of Perry’s “weak” debating skills, but those qualities are largely overrated in these types of events. What matters instead it if the candidate stays on message – and happens to pick the right message given the electoral fundamentals.  For Perry, that means focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs and – yes – jobs.  Avoid controversial statements, and instead reassure voters that you have a presidential temperament.

The second observation is Palin’s staying power in national polls.  Although her polling arc mimics Romney’s, she has managed to remain in the top tier of candidates despite running a somewhat unorthodox campaign to date.  Part of her polling success, of course, reflects name recognition based on her previous vice presidential run.   And she has the highest negatives of any of the Republican candidates.  Nonetheless, although she will not be participating in tonight’s debate, her presence will be felt.  And she will certainly be watching as well.

The third fact is the media-contrived story-line that Bachmann’s candidacy is weakening.  The recent reshuffling of Bachmann’s campaign staff has been interpreted by the media, not surprisingly, as an indication that her candidacy is struggling.  Never mind that it might make her stronger. In fact, next to Perry, she has come the farthest of any Republican in putting together an electoral coalition, she retains strong support within the Tea Party, and she currently has the most cash on hand of any Republican, except for Romney, among those who have filed FEC fundraising reports. (Paul has raised and spent more. Neither Perry nor Palin have filed as yet.).  And yet, because the media has difficulty handling more than three top-tier candidates, they have decided to pit Bachmann and Paul against each other for that coveted third spot (assuming Palin doesn’t announce). Let’s see if the two candidates take the bait tonight.

Finally, midway through the winnowing process, the bottom tier candidates – Cain, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman – are in full-blown survival mode. The danger here is that if the media decides they are not viable, it doesn’t matter how well they do in the debate. Gingrich, in my view, clearly was the strongest debater at Ames, but the media are simply not interested in his candidacy, and so his strong debate performance largely went unrewarded.  If these four don’t attract media buzz, they can’t raise money because donors largely follow the Mayor Daley adage of “don’t back no losers.”  Of this group, Huntsman seems to me to be closest to falling into the “Pawlenty of danger” zone. His effort to brand himself as the maverick “sensible” Republican hasn’t worked, I think, because it ignores a basic fact: the people he is appealing to don’t vote in Republican primaries.  Moreover, his strengths – particularly his diplomatic expertise – are not what voters are looking for during this electoral cycle. Santorum, trying to find a place in the field, seemed determined to dislodge Paul during the last debate. Let’s see if he tries to reprise that tactic, or looks to pick on someone else – such as Bachmann.

A final point – most potential voters will not pay attention to tonight’s debate, with more of them watching America’s Got Talent instead.  The debate matters much more to the issue activists, donors and media who collectively establish candidate viability during the invisible primary.  So when you evaluate the candidates’ statements, and judge winners and losers, do so in terms of these audiences, and not the general public.

If I can, I’ll try to come on later tonight with the post-mortem.

Who Won Monday’s Republican Debate? The Media!

As some of you may have heard, the Republicans held a debate in New Hampshire, at St. Anselm’s College, this past Monday (transcript here.)  It was the first of many to come in that state and across the nation more generally. Seven Republicans attended, including most of the “frontrunners” (with the conspicuous exception of Sarah Palin as well as Jon Huntsman). At this point, seven months before the New Hampshire primary, most voters in that state were likely not paying much attention.  But this does not mean these early debates aren’t important.  They are, because they provide a window into how the media, aided by a media-selected cadre of  party “insiders” and reputed “experts” (full disclosure – I occupy a peripheral spot in the “expert” clique), will begin winnowing the field of potential candidates during the coming weeks into a more manageable number.  During this period – which some have dubbed the “invisible primary” – the media will use these debates to help develop a narrative about the coming election.  That narrative will include a preliminary “ranking” of the candidates that is critical for establishing the various thresholds each candidate must meet to maintain “viability” – a crucial element in their ability to raise money.  Whether in print or on the air, there is only so much room in the overall media narrative, and thus reporters try very hard to cull the weaker candidates from the field.  They do so in part by focusing on candidates’ tactical errors or other gaffes that might serve as a pretext for relegating the candidate to second tier status or worse – disqualifying them altogether. Once cast into the equivalent of candidate purgatory, it becomes almost impossible for a candidate to climb out, in part because fundraising dries up and because media rankings that start out fluid soon begin to ossify.  So candidates try very hard in this invisible primary period to both separate themselves from the pack and to avoid making statements or tactical decisions that can be construed by the media as “mistakes”.

The interesting aspect of this exercise is determining what “gaffes” the media will latch onto. Some are easy to predict.  For example, in the days before the debate, Newt Gingrich’s top staff resigned, sparking a series of stories speculating that his candidacy was fatally wounded and that he would likely drop out.  Never mind that this type of staff reshuffling is not unusual (see Ford in 1976, Reagan in 1980 and McCain in 2008) and that it occurred very very early in the race – the media vultures were already circling Newt’s candidacy. Some of the “missteps” they cite, however, are more subtle. In Monday’s debate, for example, Tim Pawlenty was criticized for not following up on his earlier remarks citing Romney’s Massachusetts’ health care plan as the model for Obama’s national health reform plan – a comparison Pawlenty summarized earlier on Fox News with the term “Obamneycare”.  When given the opportunity on Monday to expound on this point, with Romney standing next to him, Pawlenty demurred. The media, citing the usual Republican “strategists” and “operatives” deemed this a mistake, as captured in a Politico story that led with: “Tim Pawlenty’s puzzling decision at Monday’s debate to abandon a new line of attack on Mitt Romney’s health care record is prompting fresh doubts among members of his own party about his readiness to confront the GOP frontrunner.”   Notice the language here – a “puzzling decision” that prompted “fresh doubts” about Pawlenty’s “readiness.”  Really?  Puzzling to whom?  Why, to the media, as gleaned from their “expert” sources –who wanted Pawlenty to aggressively challenge Romney, thus generating a better story. And who has “fresh doubts” – again, it is the media along with the “experts”, which is already generating a narrative suggesting Pawlenty is too “nice” and not “battle tested.”

At the other extreme, Michele Bachmann bolstered her candidacy on Monday – or so the media proclaimed. In a USAToday article titled “Debate Showing Elevates Bachmann to Higher Tier”, Jackie Kucinich wrote, “On a crowded stage, Bachmann was lively, confident, personable — she managed to mention her 23 foster children three times — and unremittingly critical of President Obama‘s policies from health care to Libya. Against other contenders with longer resumes and more experience, she emerged from the pack in way that is likely to make it easier for her to raise money, attract grass-roots support — and even emerge as a Tea Party favorite to rival Sarah Palin.”

In short, Bachmann beat media expectations, and thus elevated her stature in the race – not so much because of her policy stances or experience, but because she was aggressive, confident and on the attack. In the words of one pundit:  “She wasn’t flustered, she didn’t say anything silly, she had some funny lines.”  Not getting flustered, being funny and avoiding mistakes is a low bar indeed, but because she cleared it, she was deemed a “winner” by the media. Moreover, Bachmann meets the other media viability criteria – she has been a prodigious fundraiser, raising more money than any other House incumbent. Finally, there is a backstory that makes the Bachmann candidacy newsworthy – she is threatening to fill the void left by Palin’s absence in the race and is therefore in some sense a Palin “rival”.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile – the purported frontrunner based on early polls – “won” by showing up, not making mistakes, and leaving relatively unscathed, as his rivals directed more of their ire at President Obama.  How do the media know this? Because they surveyed 91 Democrat and Republican “insiders”, that’s why, and a plurality of them narrowly chose Romney as the winner.  That same group praised Bachmann’s performance while panning Pawlenty.   Of course, now that Bachmann’s profile has been raised, the bar will be set higher for her in the next debate.

And so it goes for each of the candidates, as the media, aided and abetted by the often unnamed party strategists who have their own interests in this race, tries to slot them into the prevailing election narrative. That narrative will be dominated by a horserace motif – the unlucky candidates will “fail to gain traction”, or see “momentum slipping”, while the favored few will be “leading the pack”.   The rest will be “struggling to break out of the pack.”  Of course, the focus on the horserace underplays the real story from Monday’s debate: no matter who wins the Republican nomination, that candidate will frame this election as a referendum on Obama’s leadership during a period of anemic economic growth. Indeed, despite the obligatory questions regarding social issues, and some discussion of foreign policy, what was most noteworthy was how much the candidates agreed on what they see as the central issue driving the vote in 2012: that Obama’s policies had prolonged the period of economic stagnation, and that the solution involved some combination of policies designed to scale back government and encourage job creation.  The critical question to be answered is how many voters agree.

And they are off!