I watched the Sioux City debate through the prism of National Review’s editorial urging conservatives to remove Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry from their shopping lists, while continuing to consider Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Numbering myself among the many conservatives who believe NR is right until proven wrong, I tried to figure out whether anyone on the editorial’s first list did well enough to merit serious attention. Conversely, did anyone on the second list acquit himself so poorly as to render further consideration dubious?
In the main, no one had a bad night, but no one on NR’s first list had a good enough night to justify upward reevaluation. Speaker Gingrich had several good answers, strongly delivered, but did little to dispel the fear that his planned World-Historical Figure tour is inimical to Republican prospects in 2012. His defense of accepting $1.6 million from Freddie Mac was as vigorous as it was unpersuasive.
The debate was probably Governor Perry’s eleventh chance to make a first impression. If two or three of the first ten had gone this well, he might still be in the top tier. But his solid though unspectacular performance in Sioux City felt like the good Sunday-afternoon round turned in by a PGA pro who has fallen out of contention, with no more reason to be nervous when he’s lining up his putts. Congresspeople Bachmann and Paul gave no reason to doubt that they’re going to the trouble of running for president for reasons that have nothing to do with becoming president.
On the other list, if Senator Santorum takes the presidential oath on Jan. 20, 2013, he will be older than 22 past presidents on the day of their first inauguration, a list including such whippersnappers as McKinley, Taft, and Coolidge. Santorum is well-prepared and earnest, but those qualities only enhance a boyishness that seems unpresidential. His low poll numbers don’t feel anomalous.
I feel about Governor Huntsman the way I did about Gov. Tim Pawlenty during his brief weeks in the hunt: The idea of both candidacies is much stronger than the candidacies themselves. Huntsman appears to be running for CEO of USA, Inc., dropping the word “transactional” into his answers and name-checking George Kennan. He was the least skilled of the seven debaters at making passages from his stump speech sound like answers to the panelists’ questions, rather than like passages from his stump speech.
During most of 2011, the thinking had been that the GOP contest would come down to Mitt Romney and one alternative. It was never plausible that another Mormon businessman who had served one gubernatorial term would be the anti-Romney. Newt Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls, however, has raised the possibility that the race will come down to the former Speaker and one alternative to him. If the Romney trajectory is like Ed Muskie’s in 1972, and journalists start using the “dogs-don’t-like-it” joke in their stories, then Republicans who fear nominating Gingrich may embrace Huntsman.
If the Romney candidacy does fail to launch, however, it won’t be because of debate performances like the one in Sioux City. He came across as calm, steady, and affable, managing to defend himself without sounding defensive. Romney in 2012, like Walter Mondale in 1984, might actually benefit from not being the front-runner for a while, becoming instead the alternative to a candidate who, very surprisingly, becomes the front-runner, and about whom the party has deep misgivings.
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.