Tags: Debates

Obama, Romney, and the Libya Exchange


Well, Obama checked one of the boxes he needed to: He came across more energetic and pugnacious. I’m sure liberals will be ecstatic. For what it’s worth, the CNN instant reaction on the bottom of the screen indicated that undecided voters weren’t pleased with the attacks and back and forth; I’m not sure if the remaining undecided really are so negative-attack-averse, or whether they’ve been conditioned to tell others that they are.

Romney had some strong moments, taking one voter’s basic, “what have you done for me” question — as one person observed, the one undecided black voter on Long Island — and offering a litany of Obama’s grand promises and how little progress had been made. Probably Romney’s best early points came on the issue of gas prices; perhaps no line from Romney or Paul Ryan will do as much damage as the questioner who began his query by noting that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that lowering the cost of gasoline for American consumers isn’t one of his priorities.

Of course, Obama’s answer never mentioned Chu.

Undoubtedly, the post-debate discussion is likely to focus on one exchange over Libya.

The president showed glowering indignation over the accusation that his administration misled the public on what happened in Benghazi and why. It was a potential slam-dunk moment . . .

. . . and then Romney got caught up in what Obama said in the Rose Garden on September 12. Take a look at Obama’s Rose Garden comments here. Obama refers to the murder of Stevens and the other Americans as an “attack” — duh — but then he says:

Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.

Those lines clearly imply that the events were a reaction to the YouTube tape. The word “terror” appears once, in the entirety of Obama’s remarks, in this context:

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.

That’s not specifically referring to the Benghazi raid, although one could argue it’s implied.

However, by telling the audience — to applause! — that Obama did refer to the murders as a terror attack, Candy Crowley is responsible for one of the most egregious misjudgments of any moderator in the history of presidential debates.

Still, the American people may remember the administration spending a lot of time talking about a YouTube video in the days after the Benghazi attack, and Obama’s sudden insistence that his administration never really pushed that implausible-from-the-start alternative explanation may strike them as odd and implausible. Viewers may also notice that the president never responded to the audience member’s question about what the administration did in response to the reports indicating Benghazi was growing increasingly dangerous.

The Libya question may not be as damaging for Romney as the Obama team may hope; it came more than 70 minutes into this debate. Other than some early fireworks, much of this debate seemed to plod along, with each candidate insisting that what the other was saying was just flat not true. But considering how many conservatives thought Libya could be a huge issue in these campaign’s final weeks, Romney’s handling is deeply disappointing.


Now she tells us: “[Romney] was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word.”

Tags: Barack Obama , Debates , Libya , Mitt Romney

The Right’s Strangely Reassuring Cynicism About Tonight


Among the conservative blogosphere and Twittersphere, there’s quite a bit of cynicism about tonight’s proceedings: Candy Crowley will clearly attack Mitt Romney and toss softballs at the president. Clearly the so-called “undecided” voters in attendance aren’t really undecided, and they’ll ask questions designed to make Romney look bad and Obama look good. They’ll ignore the rule on cheering or applause. No matter what happens, most folks in the mainstream media will enthusiastically declare Obama the winner, decree he’s the “comeback kid,” and return to their regularly-scheduled coverage of an impending Obama landslide.

That cynicism is well-founded, and yet somehow liberating. If any of these don’t come to pass, it will be a pleasant surprise to many on the Right. If they do come to pass, at least the conservative grassroots was expecting it. And undoubtedly Mitt Romney — finishing up another round of intense preparation sessions — has thought of these potential obstacles and practiced how to handle them.

Candy Crowley will probably at least want to appear even-handed. Some of the undecided voters may be ringers, or they may be genuinely uninformed low-information voters who will offer the traditional lament, “I really haven’t heard either candidate say anything all this time about the economy.” (Maybe you’ll get a hybrid, like Ponytail Guy.) The audience may indeed ignore the rules, and create the raucous atmosphere that Obama prefers at his rallies.

We do know, after watching Romney two weeks ago, that there’s very little chance he turns in a bad performance, and while the town-hall format may not be his most natural setting, we know he’s capable of an exceptionally good one. We now know he’s capable of thoroughly beating Obama, and doing so in a way that Obama doesn’t even notice; the president walked off the stage convinced he won last time.

So unless Romney really stumbles, we’ll have a good Romney performance against a good Obama performance — probably not enough to undo the momentum and preference cascade set off by the first debate. If the media are determined to declare Obama the winner, let them. The people watching at home know what they see. About 70 million watched the first debate, and only 51 million watched the vice-presidential debate.

In fact, the media’s desperation to see a solid Obama win might provide one more example of low expectations that hurt the president in the long run. A common theory after the first debate was that the media’s kid-gloves treatment, and Obama’s reluctance to do challenging interviews or frequent press conferences, left him unprepared for a tough challenger and resorting to his usual shallow talking points. If Obama turns in a merely okay performance, and the media hypes it as a colossal showcase of excellence, it may just reaffirm voters’ doubts about the president.

Tags: Barack Obama , Debates , Mitt Romney

A Likely List of Thursday’s Debate Topics


For much of today, there has been some grumbling on the right about Martha Raddatz, the ABC News senior correspondent who is moderating the vice-presidential debate. In 1991, Barack Obama attended her wedding. This is rather weak tea as far as evidence of bias; she has since divorced and remarried. (Wonder what Obama got her as a gift . . . a cassette tape of his speeches?) If anything, this story coming up might make her a little more determined to appear to be playing it down the middle.

But take a look at her recent work, and we may have a good sense of the likely topics:

Martha Raddatz was named Senior Foreign Affairs correspondent for ABC News in November 2008, after serving as White House correspondent during the last term of President George W. Bush’s administration. In addition to covering the day-to-day foreign and domestic stories from the White House, Raddatz has traveled from Haiti to Yemen to the Mideast and through south Asia.

Raddatz has traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan dozens of times, and to Iraq 21 times to cover the ongoing conflict. She was on the last convoy out of Iraq and is the only television reporter allowed to cover a combat mission over Afghanistan in an F15 fighter jet, spending nearly 10 hours in the air on two separate missions. In the early hours of June 8, 2006, she was the first correspondent to report that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed in a U.S. air strike north of Baghdad. In 2011 she reported exclusive details on the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. That same year she had an exclusive interview on the USS Kearsage off the coast of Libya with the Marines who helped rescue two American pilots who had gone down in Libya. In 2012, Raddatz was on a USS destroyer as it made its way through the Strait of Hormuz.

Libya’s a certainty, and some related or separate question on the status of al-Qaeda and U.S. efforts against that group. Afghanistan and our draw-down of troops is also almost certain. Expect at least one question on Iran and its nuclear program. Sequestration and its impact on the defense budget is another very likely topic.

The format is “nine 10-minute segments, each candidate will have two minutes to respond to an opening question. The moderator will then lead a discussion.” Libya, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iran, and sequestration would make five topics; the remaining four would be on domestic policy and would probably focus heavily on the economy. With Ryan on stage, the debt and his budgetary proposals are almost certain to get their own segment.

Tags: al-Qaeda , Debates , Joe Biden , Libya , Paul Ryan

You Can’t Improve a Debater Who Sees Losses as Wins


In light of Toby Harnden’s shocking story about President Obama’s assessment of his debate performance, maybe Andrew Sullivan’s panic attack is just good common sense.

When President Barack Obama stepped off the stage in Denver last week the 60 million Americans watching the debate against Mitt Romney already knew it had been a disaster for him.

But what nobody knew, until now, was that Obama believed he had actually won.

In an extraordinary insight into the events leading up to the 90 minute showdown which changed the face of the election, a Democrat close to the Obama campaign today reveals that the President also did not take his debate preparation seriously, ignored the advice of senior aides and ignored one-liners that had been prepared to wound Romney.

The Democrat said that Obama’s inner circle was dismayed at the ‘disaster’ and that he believed the central problem was that the President was so disdainful of Romney that he didn’t believe he needed to engage with him.

See, now it’s time for Democrats to panic, and/or for others in the administration to consider invoking the 25th Amendment, because any president who is so completely out of touch with what’s happening directly in front of him may “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” I exaggerate… slightly.

It’s easy to think of one of Obama’s funnier, and perhaps more revealing self-assessments: “You know, I actually believe my own bull****.”

The description of Obama – so disdainful, he didn’t feel he needed to really interact with Romney – seems to fit the demeanor we saw in the president, and other descriptions of the mood within Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters. The problem is that this sets up a darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don’t decision for Obama in the next presidential debate next week.

If Obama tears into Romney from the opening moments, he comes across as a man who realizes he’s losing, and who’s desperate to change the dynamic. He may look harsh, angry, and divisive. His base will probably love it, but all of the voters who have shifted to Romney in the past week will probably feel better about their choice. The tone of Obama’s performance last week was that he’s spent - he’s out of energy, out of ideas, out of hope and now just hoping to plod along for the next four years. Ninety minutes of Obama trying to recite his attack ads’ greatest hits before a town hall audience will only reinforce the perception, “this guy’s done, he’s got nothing else left to offer.”

Keep in mind that Romney proved in the first debate to be much more nimble, persuasive, and personable than almost anyone expected. Obama could very well go on the attack and lose the exchange.

But if Obama plays Mr. Nice Guy, his base is likely to be irate and depressed once again, since attacks on Romney are like catnip to them. In a way, failing to take on Romney would only reinforce the perception that Obama thinks he’s above this, that he thinks these debates are silly wastes of time, and that he doesn’t think his opponent is worth taking seriously.

Ideally, Obama would defend his own policies and decisions and point out risks in Romney’s approach, while taking a respectful and perhaps even gracious tone. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine Obama doing that; he would need to show respect for an opponent he clearly doesn’t respect.

In a way, Obama’s problem is that he’s too honest: he doesn’t take Romney seriously, and he cannot imagine how anyone else ever could.

Tags: Barack Obama , Debates , Mitt Romney

Last Night’s TV Debate Audience: At Least 58 Million


BOOM. Big national audience for last night:

More than 58 million people watched the first Presidential debate last night between President Obama and Mitt Romney, up substantially from the first debate in the 2008 election cycle, which had 52.4 million viewers.

Fox News was the most-watched cable news network during the debate, and will likely be the most-watched network on TV, though final broadcast numbers will not be released until after 4 PM.

Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, Fox and CBS are all up from the same debate in 2008, while CNN and ABC are down. In the adults 25-54 demo, FNC and MSNBC are up compared to 2008, while CNN is down.

The 58 million figure (and the 52.4 million figure) does not include coverage on PBS, Univision, C-SPAN, the cable business networks or online.

By my math, that’s about 10 percent higher than 2008′s first debate, which occurred just as the country faced a sudden economic meltdown.

Throw in PBS, Univision, and C-SPAN, and perhaps north of 60 million?

Tags: Debates

Monster Ratings for Last Night’s Debate?


An NR-reading friend who works in Indianapolis media writes in to Campaign Spot, reacting to the overnight data for local television’s debate coverage.

He says that the viewership for local affiliates of CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, and PBS in the Indianapolis market reached about 350,000 households, “much bigger than any night of the conventions.” He explains that that adds up to about 32 rating points, or the equivalent of one-third of all homes in the area.  “That’s slightly more than what a typical Indianapolis Colts NFL game does here. And that’s before the cable numbers are in, which probably add another 10 to 20 rating points.”

He concludes, “Unless Indianapolis was an anomaly last night, this debate was a huge event and probably exceeded the 40–50 million figure pundits had been predicting.”

Other ratings data will be released shortly, around 11 a.m. eastern.

UPDATE: He writes that new numbers indicate another another 12 ratings points from cable, “so that means almost half of all homes — about 46 percent — watched the debate the Indianapolis (Designated Market Area).”

Tags: Debates

Obama Fans Suddenly See the Same Guy We’ve Seen All Along


As you might expect, Thursday’s edition of the Morning Jolt is all debate reaction. Democrats, and many folks in the media, simply were not prepared . . . for Mitt Romney to be so prepared . . . and for President Obama to be so unprepared.

The Denver Knockout

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.”

Guess who said that?

Bill Maher.

Chuck Todd: “Very important night for Mitt Romney. And he rose to the challenge.” Later in the evening, Todd reported, “[The Obama campaign] knows they lost tonight.”

Rachel Maddow began by saying, “I don’t know who won this debate.”

Chris Matthews was morose: “I don’t know what he was doing out there. . . . He had his head down.”

Go watch the video of the meltdown. It’s worth it. The transcript doesn’t capture just how epic:

“Where was Obama tonight? He should watch — well, not just Hardball, Rachel, he should watch you, he should watch the Reverend Al [Sharpton], he should watch Lawrence. He would learn something about this debate. There’s a hot debate going on in this country. You know where it’s been held? Here on this network is where we’re having the debate,” Matthews said. “We have our knives out,” Matthews said, admitting his network is trying their best to defend Obama and his policies.

“We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in their disarmed.” “He was like, ‘Oh an hour and half? I think I can get through this thing. And I don’t even look at this guy.’ Whereas Romney — I love the split-screen — staring at Obama, addressing him like prey. He did it just right. ‘I’m coming at an incumbent. I got to beat him. You’ve got to beat the champ and I’m going to beat him tonight. And I don’t care what this guy, the moderator, whatever he thinks he is because I’m going to ignore him,’” Matthews said.

“What was Romney doing?” Matthews asked. “He was winning.”

Ed Schultz, MSNBC: “I was disappointed in the President tonight….He was off his game. I was stunned.”

Michael Moore: “This is what happens when you pick John Kerry as your debate coach. . . . What’s that silence I hear? No one throwing a party? No one saying this election is a slam dunk for Obama? What happened to the victory lap?”

Van Jones: “Up until tonight, we were told Romney was Thurston Howell… Tonight, he was presidential.”

Larry Sabato: “Probably Romney’s best debate ever. Maybe Obama’s worst. I lost count of # of opportunities Obama missed. . . . This debate may build audience for other 3. Voters will want to see if Obama can stage comeback. . . . Mr. President, cancel all your golf games. You did miserably tonight.”

Wolf Blitzer: “This was a pretty good night for Mitt Romney. He clearly held his own. We didn’t hear the attack lines from President Obama that we were expecting . . .”

John King: “A lot of liberals complaining about Obama’s performance. He was rusty. He hasn’t done this for four years. We didn’t hear about Bain Capital, we didn’t hear about the forty-seven percent.”

Anderson Cooper: “Critics of the president often say he can be professorial, I imagine they’ll be saying that tonight.”

Terry Moran: “Obama’s passivity in this debate, his lack of oomph and clarity, plays into the Romney narrative: Nice guy; can’t lead. Big W for GOP.”

Nicholas Kristof: “Romney is relaxed and empathetic, while Obama comes across as a constipated professor. C’mon, Mr. President!”

David Corn: “Romney looks like he’s having a good time. Obama does not.”

Josh Greeman of the New York Daily News: “Possible upside: Some people might feel a little sorry for Obama?”

Michael Crowley of Time magazine: “Sensing weakness, Sasha and Malia just hounded dad into doubling their allowances.”

Two other points that become clearer the morning after: Over four to eight years, President Obama grew quite dependent upon audience reaction to feed his energy during appearances like this. The audience followed Jim Lehrer’s instructions and there was no applause other than the introduction, little or no laughter. Without it, his energy flagged, and his mood seemed to darken; his irritation with Romney and occasionally Lehrer (“I had five seconds left, before you interrupted me”) couldn’t be concealed.

Secondly, it didn’t seem like Obama was ready to have his record challenged this way; he apparently thinks that he’s done as good a job as anyone could expect, and seems to think that most Americans feel the same way. He defended his record with a lot of the familiar buzzwords — “investments” “balanced approach” “class sizes” — and Romney swatted most of them away, like when he pointed out that the $90 billion spent on “green jobs” could have been used to hire 2 million more teachers.

At one point, Obama said, “It means that the teacher that I met in Las Vegas, a wonderful young lady, who describes to me — she’s got 42 kids in her class. The first two weeks she’s got them, some of them sitting on the floor until finally they get reassigned. They’re using text books that are 10 years old.” He seemed to forget he was the incumbent, and that a lot of Americans heard that and wondered, “Why are you telling us how bad things are in our schools, sir? Why haven’t you done something about that, Mr. President?”

Tags: Barack Obama , Debates , Mitt Romney

Everything in Moderation, Including Moderators


Big Tuesday Morning Jolt, looking at Wolf Blitzer showing some lupine ferocity in his latest interview, the DCCC’s cry of panic, an unexpected new advocate for the Romney-Ryan ticket and then this news about this autumn’s debate moderators…

Brace Yourself, America, for the Moderating Zest and Roguish Danger of Lehrer and Schieffer

Are these moderators worth getting upset about?

First presidential debate:

Jim Lehrer, Executive Editor of the PBS NewsHour

Wednesday, October 3, University of Denver, Denver, CO

Vice presidential debate:

Martha Raddatz, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent, ABC News

Thursday, October 11, Centre College, Danville, KY

Second presidential debate (town meeting):

Candy Crowley, Chief Political Correspondent, CNN and Anchor, CNN’s State of the Union

Tuesday, October 16, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY

Third presidential debate:

Bob Schieffer, Chief Washington Correspondent, CBS News and Moderator, Face the Nation

Monday, October 22, Lynn University, Boca Raton, FL

The fourth presidential debate will be moderated by vanilla.

I see we have a “town meeting” style debate. I wonder if we’ll see “Ponytail Guy.” Cato remembered his question:

“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it….”

Back when Rush Limbaugh was doing a television show, he made fun of the question of Ponytail Guy here.  “How many of you feel like you’re the children of Bill Clinton? (Boos) Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Before you – it is possible!”

I look at the list of debate moderators and see… safe. Boring. Sure, kinda left-of-center, but after John McCain’s campaign was okay with Ifill being under contract to write “Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” while she was moderating the vice-presidential debate in 2008, it’s kind of hard to imagine we’ll find a reporter with a more glaring issue than that. Hey, what is Linda Douglass doing? Or is she still urging us to report Obamacare critics to the government?

And did we end up having any major complaint about Ifill’s moderation beyond her failure to disclose her book to the Commission on Presidential Debates or to the viewing audience? Maybe the issue of the book helped ensure Ifill aiming for maximum even-handedness…

Lee Cary wants to see Romney combative from the first question:

So, once again, we can look forward to softball questions lobbed toward President Obama, and “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” -like questions fired at Governor Romney.

All across the nation, conservatives today are asking themselves this question:  Does the G.O.P. have a death wish, or is the Republican establishment run by progressive moles?

Put that aside, and let’s examine this development, hardly new, from a different perspective; not one with a Pollyannaish slant.  Let’s see it as an opportunity.  (I know, that’s what General Custer may have said.)

We know that, in most if not all of the debates, the spin will be in.  So why not take former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s response to spun questions from the liberal media in the G.O.P primary debates as the model.  He did not accept the premises of bent questions.

Romney should not only not accept those premises, but he should debunk them right up front. Without putting on his characteristic smile, cause this stuff isn’t funny.  He should call-out the bias of the moderators — who are definitely not moderate — and reframe their questions when they’re obviously slanted. 

What, do that and anger the moderators, thereby making them more bias?  The premise of that response is that they’re cable of being more bias. They are not. They’ve topped out.

Allahpundit puts it in historical perspective:

A quick check of the debate website reveals that not only has no MSNBCer ever hosted a debate, only once in the past 25 years has someone from NBC News been tapped to do so. That was Brokaw in 2008; Russert, David Gregory, and Brian Williams have all been shut out. The moderators typically come from a mix of CBS, ABC, PBS (Lehrer is a staple at these things), and occasionally CNN (Bernard Shaw moderated at least once). That’s exactly what we’re getting this year, which suggests that these things are governed by institutional inertia more than anything else. They’ve got a formula, they’re sticking with it, and the campaigns seem okay with it. Again, I think their top priority is not being taken by surprise, and these four seem unlikely to do that. Think back on all the debates you’ve watched since, say, 2000. What’s the most dramatic/memorable/unpredictable moment? Al Gore sighing? QED.

One other point worth flagging now. Martha Raddatz, who’ll be moderating the Ryan/Biden debate, is ABC’s chief foreign correspondent, which makes me wonder if the questions will be geared a bit more towards foreign policy than they might have been with a different moderator. That’s golden for Biden, if so: Not only is Ryan’s experience in that area thin, it’s a perfect invitation for Greasy Joe to spike the ball and do an end-zone dance over Bin Laden. Exit question: Will the VP debate draw more viewers than any of the presidential debates? It did four years ago.

Tags: Debates

Too Many Cliffhangers in the Debate Show’s Season Finale


The Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt features Chris Christie on a tear, the great Mark Edward Taylor, author of Branding Obamessiah and National Review cruiser, analyzing the “monster lighting” on Rick Santorum at a recent event, and, of course, a big debate wrap-up:

And Now, the Dramatic Season Finale of . . . ‘The Republican Debates’

Bobby Ewing in the shower on “Dallas.” Agent Cooper staring into the mirror and seeing BOB in “Twin Peaks.” Fringe’s dramatic introduction to a world where recent history played out quite differently. Locutus.

The bar is set high for shocking season finales, but the year’s breakout prime-time ratings hit, the Republican Presidential Primary Debates, aimed to offer a grand finale.

The Debates have been one of television’s longest-running series (or at least it feels that way) and they have delivered on programmers’ promises of a thrill ride of twists and turns: Tim Pawlenty’s hesitation on using the “Obamneycare” attack in the second episode. Rick Perry’s sudden amnesia. The revelation that Jon Huntsman had been briefly replaced by a lookalike that only spoke Chinese. The back-to-back episodes where Newt Gingrich went rogue and pursued his own vendetta of vengeance against moderators Juan Williams and John King. The series took a positively David Lynchian-twist when George Stephanopolous revealed a bizarre obsession with the candidates’ alleged secret plans to ban contraception, and Diane Sawyer’s loopy, nonsensical night driven senseless by cold medicine.

Occasionally the writers would phone it in, like two episodes ago with a Brian Williams-centered episode that droned on and on and was completely devoid of action. And a lot of viewers have argued that the series should shift away from the protagonist of Mitt Romney, suggesting he’s too bland, uninteresting, and doesn’t pack enough punch to be the series hero that viewers are demanding.

Wednesday night didn’t quite offer the game changer some viewers hoped for. And the mysterious “Brokered Convention”/“Mysterious Figure in the Wings” plotline was left frustratingly unresolved. We should have figured they would end on a cliffhanger.

Having beaten the debates-as-television-series metaphor into the ground, on to the assessment. Romney is, bit by bit, proving to be a better debater than people thought. Yes, he’s pretty shameless about going after opponents’ inconsistencies and unpopular positions that he himself held earlier in his career – but the audaciousness of it tends to leave the opposition flustered and infuriated.

Last night, he jabbed at Santorum, “When I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere.” Really, after lines like that, people doubt Romney’s willingness to go after Obama? If nominated, Romney will probably lacerate Obama on the individual mandate, not cutting spending, insufficient support for drilling, demonizing the wealthy, and so on. Obama may coolly point out Romney’s past support for those positions . . . and I suspect Romney will just ignore it and point out that those positions are the wrong ones, and the American public opposes them. Would voters prefer the consistent man who stands for ideas they oppose? Or will they prefer a flip-flopper who currently holds the positions they support?

You and I, who have watched Romney as a passionately pro-choice candidate, bragging that he would be better for Massachusetts gays than Ted Kennedy in 1994, look at his current emphatic table pointing during these debates, and think, ‘He might just be saying what he needs to get the nomination. I don’t know if I trust him. He sounds sincere now, but Massachusetts liberals probably thought he agreed with them in 2002, too.’ But I suspect casual voters ignore anything before, say, last weekend. I suspect they put a whole lot more into a candidate’s nonverbal communication, and whether that conveys sincerity and constancy, than anything that would require them to, you know, read something. If you doubt me . . . look at Obama’s election.

Santorum’s a fighter, no doubt about it. Rip-snorting, you might say. Of course, he has two terms in the Senate full of difficult votes to explain, and during the debate he had to express contrition for No Child Left Behind, to insist the earmark process wasn’t that bad until a couple of lawmakers starting abusing it, that backing Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2004 was the right call (fighting words, from where I sit), and that bailing out the steel industry was good economic policy. Oh, and his one-word description of himself was “courage.”

Newt Gingrich had a good night. I think his answer on women in combat was fantastic. But unless something very dramatic happens, he’s going to have a bad Tuesday, and finish with no delegates. South Carolina gets further and further into the rear view mirror. As Greg Gutfeld put it, “Newt came off as the irrelevant ex-boyfriend. Still shows up at Monday bowling night, but there’s a new boyfriend, and he’s there. Awkward.”

Jeff Greenfield: “First big debate reaction: “Holy smoke! I missed the Knick blowout of Atlanta for THIS?”

Michael Graham remained unimpressed with the topic selection: “How’d ya like CNN’s excellent questions on gas prices, economy, jobs, energy, and Obama’s new $250 billion tax hike . . .oh, wait.”

Mollie Hemingway noticed, “CNN, which couldn’t find a woman to ask a question, says ‘there are a lot of women on Twitter who think these candidates are living in the past.’ Specifically, it was David Gergen who offered that assessment.”

Howard Kurtz: “A somewhat muted debate that did nothing to shake up the race. Which is good for Santorum. Romney didn’t hurt himself.”

Josh Trevino: “Tough to figure a winner this evening, but the loser was America, so there’s that.” I’ll bet it hurt to catch that glimpse of Rick Perry in the audience.

Among those who saw a Romney win, and/or a tough night for Rick Santorum:

Bob McDonnell: “Great story from Mitt Romney tonight at the GOP debate about my daughter Jeanine, the Iraq veteran. Thanks for telling the story!”

Gerry Dales detects political gravity: “Every time someone in the GOP rises to the top, they have their worst debate performance shortly after.”

John Tabin: “Not a great night for anyone, but an especially bad night for Santorum, I think.”

Kevin Eder has a suspicious mind: “Did anyone else notice that Newt and Mitt really didn’t attack each other tonight?”

“David Axelrod sent more than a dozen tweets during the debate, nearly all against Romney. I wonder why,” observes Brit Hume.

Andy Levy of Red Eye was pretty happy: “Debate grades: Romney A+, Santorum A+, Gingrich A+, Paul A+. (Note: I didn’t see it.)”

Still, some saw a reversal as the night went on. Gabe Malor: “Santorum had a really rough night, but a good finish. Romney had a good night, but his final answer was awful.”

Tags: Debates , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich , Rick Santorum , Ron Paul

Oh, Hey, Those All-Important, Race-Changing Debates? Nevermind.


In the final Morning Jolt of the week, an examination of Chris Christie’s acts of respect for Whitney Houston, whether Rick Santorum would be a gamble for the cause of limited government . . . and oh yeah, debate season appears to be over:

The March 1 Debate: Just Newt vs. the Moderator, No Holds Barred!

What if they held a debate and no one came? Now we know the answer: “Mitt Romney’s campaign said Thursday that he will not take part in debate, the final one before Super Tuesday on March 6. In addition, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is reportedly sitting it out as well, and Rick Santorum’s campaign says he’s likely to skip it too. CNN, confirming that Romney and Paul won’t participate, now says that it will pull out of the debate. ‘Without full participation of all four candidates, CNN will not move forward with the Super Tuesday debate,’ CNN said in a statement.”

Ben Shapiro seems to have whiplash from the sudden change in the perceived importance of debates: “There’s a good political reason for Romney and Santorum to pull out: they have nothing to gain. Santorum is running far ahead of where he thought he would be at this point in the race; Romney doesn’t want to give Santorum any more ammunition. Ron Paul would rather spend time fundraising and wearing tinfoil hats. The big question is: now the debates don’t matter? For months, all we heard was that debates were the best way to select our candidates. On that basis, we ousted Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Now debates have taken a backseat to basic campaigning.”

Tags: Debates

Is GOP Debate Season About to End? Should It?


In the Wednesday Morning Jolt, a look at the effort to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin, George Lucas’s response to his critics, and then this suggestion that the season of Republican debates may be coming to an end . . .

Will Mitt Romney Start Vetoing More Debates?

The part of me that would like my evenings back is okay with the concept of debate season coming to an end. The part of me that hates seeing the likely 2012 Republican nominee back down from anything is not okay with the appearance that Mitt Romney has had enough of this.

Byron York: “After a debate in which Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney faced attacks from all sides, the Romney campaign says it has not yet accepted invitations to participate in two high-profile debates leading up to the January 31 Florida primary, and a key Romney adviser is expressing fatigue and frustration over what he sees as a never-ending series of GOP debates. ‘There are too many of these,’ Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said after Monday night’s Fox News debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. ‘We have to bring some order to it. We haven’t accepted Florida . . . It’s kind of like a cruise that’s gone on too long.’”

“Given the news this week, I’m not sure a “cruise” analogy is a good choice,” quips Ed Morrissey.

Ace doesn’t think Romney will go through with this . . . yet: “I don’t suppose that anyone can disagree too much that there have been too many debates. I wish he had skipped earlier ones, though, because most debates are about him, and you rarely get to hear other people except vis a vis Romney. Maybe his thinking is that, given an apparently wide lead in Florida (Romney 46, Gingrich 20, Santorum 12), he’s got Florida wrapped up and can afford to coast. The problem with that rationale is that the field may not be five-strong when he gets to Florida. Perry or Gingrich or Santorum may drop out by then, and the remaining candidates will get a bump from that. Prediction: He goes to both debates or at least one. Maybe he’ll skip one to make the point that he’s not required to attend every single one of them.”

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey says that on the question of whether to continue holding them “that is going to be out of Romney’s hands. He might not like getting beat up on stage, but at least he’s there to defend himself. The media will cover the debates whether Romney is there or not, so the only way he could successfully shut down the debates is if he gets the other Republican candidates to also withdraw. They’re practically on life support as it is, so they are certainly not going to pass up an opportunity for national and state-wide coverage in Florida for free. If they show up, Romney has to participate as well, if for no other reason than to keep playing defense and push back a little himself.”

Bruce McQuain says he’s had enough, at least in the current format: “I’m personally tired of the debates. For the most part they’ve delivered more entertainment than information. They’ve devolved into scorekeeping about who got the best shot in on Romney. This is something like the 15th Republican debate and we’re no more enlightened about the serious topics we should be addressing than we were after the 1st.

“If we have to go through more of this debate nonsense, can we have one solely focused on jobs, the economy and the proposed policies each of the candidates would try to have implemented to turn this mess around? Can we hear an intelligent discussion of what the European mess portends and how it will effect us? . . . And can we give them more than 90 seconds to answer? I’m tired of hearing the same old stump speech for the umpteenth time, the usual fall back when there are time limits on answers. If the debate is 2 hours and that means only 2 to 3 questions get asked, but each candidate gets, say 5 to 7 minutes to answer, I’m fine with that.”

Eh, I’m not so certain that some candidates this cycle had a good five to seven minutes worth of thoughts to share on all topics.

To everything there is a season, including “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

Tags: Debates , Mitt Romney

The Republican Candidates’ Holiday Special


In the final Jolt of the week, a roundup of reactions to the final debate . . . until the next one.

Super Debate XVI!

Thursday night’s debate — the 16th of the year, and the final one before the Iowa caucuses — felt like one of those “clip episodes” that a lot of television shows tend to run around this time of year, to save time and money. Hey, Ron Paul doesn’t think that the Iranian regime represents much of a threat! Hey, Rick Santorum thinks that viewpoint is naïve and bonkers! Hey, haven’t we seen this plenty of times before?

Two solid hours, my friends. With 16 debates and one and a half to two hours each, we’ve probably seen nearly 30 hours of debates so far. This has turned these events into something of an ordeal; Nancy Wright declared at the conclusion, “I feel like I just had a root canal.”

Tonight was grand finale for some candidates, Jake Tapper observes: “Doubt there will be 7 candidates on stage for the next debate.”

Robert George assessed, “Winners: Romney steadied himself after last ‘bet’ debate; Newt solid, except for Fannie/Freddie; Bachmann sharp vs. Newt.”

Jazz Shaw: “For once I won’t wait until tomorrow. There was only one winner tonight. Bachmann. Biggest loser? Fox.” Neil Cavuto, Charles Krauthammer, Chris Wallace and Megan Kelly all said that Michele Bachmann proved to be an effective attacker, particularly against Gingrich, but everyone seemed to think that Gingrich held his own — a good night if you’re a frontrunner.

When she tore into Gingrich, accusing him of campaigning for Republicans who supported partial-birth abortion, John McCormick quipped, “Bachmann just pulled out Gingrich’s beating heart. How pro-life is that?”

For what it’s worth, Frank Luntz suggested that his focus groups didn’t like to see attacks, so it is possible that Bachmann will generate a backlash. “It helps solidify her vote, but it doesn’t help her gain more of the vote.”

One rare voice who saw trouble for Gingrich was Alex Castellanos: “Newt had to win tonight. Romney only needed a tie. Newt did not get what he needed. The negative ad barrage will wear him down.”

Ken Spain, formerly of the NRCC, also believes that the race is now a spending competition: “Debates are over. Question is who is spending how much and where? Watch candidate surges and free falls parallel to their ad spending.”

Rick Perry got to enjoy the much-anticipated question about Fast and Furious, and if it was a softball, he still hit the cover off it by denouncing Eric Holder’s mismanagement so thoroughly.

The delightful Tabitha Hale admits, “Not gonna lie, I applauded in my living room.” Katie Pavlich — the person you should be watching for the latest on Fast and Furious — declared Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly the debate winners for finally putting Fast and Furious front and center.

S. E. Cupp: “Perry had the best debate of his life. If he could repeat tonight over and over, he’d be the candidate people wanted him to be.” Derek Hunter is unconvinced: “Question to people saying Perry did much better tonight: Is that really an accomplishment if there was nowhere to go but up?”

Studying the candidate’s hand gestures, Mike Murphy observes, “Huntsman is always shaking an invisible watermelon when he speaks.”

Tags: Debates , Michele Bachmann , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich

During Debate, the GOP Field Contemplates a World of Trouble


The last Morning Jolt of this holiday week is almost entirely debate coverage; here’s the overview . . .

Happy Thanksgiving Travel Headache Day! The Jolt will resume Monday morning.

The Thanksgiving Week Debate: Who Turned Out to Be the Turkey?

So here’s what I liked about last night’s debate: it was pretty serious. In fact, I think I like the stick-to-one-topic debates (the Bloomberg News economic one, last night’s foreign policy one) more than the grab-bag ones, because it seems to give us a slightly more detailed discussion. Having said that, a lot of candidates have perfected the way to handle questions in debates like these, or to at least sound like they know what they’re talking about.

“I’m glad you raised that, Wolf. [X] is a serious issue and represents one of the key foreign policy challenges of time. A lot of people don’t realize that [Memorized Talking Point Number One], or that [Memorized Talking Point Number Two],  or even that [Memorized Talking Point Number Three]. This is an issue that calls for the utmost serious thinking and real leadership, which is something that President Obama has repeatedly failed to provide. Rest assured that as our president, I would not accept this incoherent mush of a policy but make sure that [key American foreign-policy goal] is enacted.”

Left unsaid in the above pleasant blather is any sense of how that key American foreign-policy goal would get enacted.

Still the GOP field managed to garner praise from an unlikely source: The New York Times’s Nate Silver concludes, “I’m not grading on a curve. Honestly think Republican candidates have been pretty sharp tonight. Only Cain really off his game.”

Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer: “This is a good and serious debate, about complicated issues. For all the criticism of politicians, this is a good event.”

Former Bush-Cheney campaign ad man and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos: “Who on this stage can you see debating Obama? Romney, Gingrich, Huntsman and, on outside rail, Bachmann.” Then he meanly snarks, “Could Perry debate Obama? Fear he would be pulling on door marked ‘push’ trying to get to stage.”

University of Virginia professor and human quote machine Larry Sabato: “PROF’S FINAL GRADES: Newt & Paul B+, Mitt & Hunts B, Bach B-, Perry & Santorum C, Cain D. Based on performance not positions.”

Ramesh suspected that some candidates had established their reputations and based their campaign themes on other issues, and were a little uneasy focusing beyond our borders for two hours: “You get the impression these candidates just love getting the debate off foreign policy.”

Todd Herman observed that the GOP is at a disadvantage on some of these issues: “It’s so easy to be a Democrat in debates. Should we secure the border? Nope.”

While border security was discussed pretty thoroughly, a related topic never came up. As my buddy Cam put it, “And another debate ends without a single Fast and Furious question. Thanks for nothing, Blitz.”

Josh Trevino also saw a glaring omission: “Biggest foreign-policy crisis we face right now? The Eurozone collapse. Mentions at this evening’s debate? Zero.”

Tags: Debates , Jon Huntsman , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich , Ron Paul

Like It or Not, Debating Is Part of Running for President


The final Morning Jolt of the week focuses heavily on the possibility of one GOP candidate skipping some of the upcoming debates . . .

Don’t Skip, Rick!

Whether you like the debates or not, chances are you’ve watched at least one of them, seen highlights, read the transcript, or otherwise seen coverage of them. (Exhibit A: You’re reading this newsletter.) We can complain about the moderators, the questions, the topics discussed and the topics ignored, time limits on answers, bells, whistles, commercial breaks, audience applause, and everything else. But they are the one time every couple of weeks that every political junkie in the country focuses their attention in one place and gives the Republican presidential candidates a chance to make the sale.

(Unless your name is Thad McCotter.)

It’s inevitable that every candidate is going to have at least one off night during their campaign, particularly with our new system of four hundred and twenty three official and nationally televised debates before the Iowa caucuses. (I’m exaggerating; eight so far, six to go before Iowans vote.) But that’s okay. Candidates have survived bad debate performances. But . . .

This is all a way of laying out why Rick Perry might as well concede the race if he doesn’t want to appear in debates anymore. It’s three to five million viewers. You have to visit a lot of diners, fundraisers in hotel ballrooms and VFW halls to reach that many Republicans at once.

At Legal Insurrection, William Jacobson agrees with me: “Whether Rick Perry ends up showing up at the debates or not, this sends precisely the wrong signal. This is not May or June. If you want the nomination, you show up to debates in November and December, without hesitation.”

There’s a wide variety of responses at Ricochet, but this one from Stuart Creque stung a bit: “I like Perry and could become a Perry supporter, but this is a terrible move. We want to select a President who rises to challenges and finds the strength, the determination and the solutions to overcome them, not a President who gives the impression (deserved or not) that if he finds something too challenging, he’ll walk away from it and complain that it’s unfair. I’d argue that we already have that kind of whiner in the White House, and Perry risks being perceived as that kind of whiner if he can’t cowboy up and learn how to handle a debate — even if it is unfair and skewed in favor of pyrotechnic intramural assaults.”

Matt Lewis offers seven reasons why the move might be a good one for Perry, highest among them, “Debates aren’t targeted. A small percentage of the people watching a given debate on TV are likely, persuadable, and eligible voters who live in the early states. If someone who is already 100 percent committed to, say, Herman Cain watches a debate and Perry performs well, it doesn’t help him. If someone who is a Democrat living in Maryland watches a debate and Perry performs well, it doesn’t help. But when Perry is campaigning in Iowa, he can be pretty sure that he is reaching an audience of voters that might actually help him win. (Granted, the people in the debate hall are typically from early states, but they represent a small percentage of viewers.)”

The problem here is that at some point, this field is going to get winnowed down, and some folks are going to find their favorite candidate not among the available options anymore. Perry has the financial resources to be one of the last ones standing. Presuming, hypothetically, that Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman are among those knocked out first, wouldn’t Perry want to have done his best to look his best to their supporters? Those folks who are committed to Cain or Bachmann or whoever may find their options down to Perry and Romney. Wouldn’t the Texas Governor want to take every opportunity to become the second choice of those committed Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich supporters?

If he skips, isn’t it clear that Perry doesn’t want to take every opportunity to make his pitch to everyone?

For an alternative view, Byron thinks Perry has a point: “That said, Perry has a point when he suggests there are just too many debates scheduled in the rapidly dwindling number of days before voters go to the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other key primary states . . . What would the candidates do if they weren’t debating so much? They’d campaign more. That’s obviously what Perry wants to do. Compare his weak performance on the debate stage with his mastery of hands-on, one-on-one campaigning, and it’s easy to understand why. But fewer debates would probably benefit the other candidates, too. Voters in the early states really do pay close personal attention to candidates, and word gets around if a candidate does well on the stump. Of course, for that to happen, the candidate has to actually be on the stump.”

Tags: Debates , Rick Perry

Obi-Wan Kenobi on Last Night’s Debate and the State of Play


Because you demanded it . . . I have finally persuaded Obi-Wan Kenobi to weigh in on the state of the Republican presidential primary. Obi-Wan, a mysterious wise figure who has been around Republican politics longer than I have been alive, is not affiliated with any candidate, but since several candidates in the field have been around national politics a long time, he knows some of them quite well.

Jim: What did last night mean for Romney?

Obi-Wan: Even in the midst of heated disputes, the guy seems programmed. If an opponent challenged him during an answer, he would immediately revert to “Hey, this is my turn to talk, you aren’t allowed to interrupt” and try to show passion. He learned this after a campaign stop some while back when he got praised for showing some assertiveness with hecklers by lecturing them about his right to respond. But a presidential debate is different. These are your fellow contenders for the most important job in the world. They get some leeway. You have to come across as an engaged opponent, not an exasperated time-keeper. Mitt’s responses to criticism seemed robotic because they were. You could almost see the lights flashing as the computerized instructions kicked in: “When Challenged, Resort to Earlier Campaign-Trail Tactic That Won Praise.”

Jim: I’ve been very disappointed with Perry for much of his campaign, but I liked the new energy he showed us, at least in the early parts of last night’s debate. What do you think of him?

Obi-Wan: Look out for this guy, I’m telling you. When Romney kept insisting Perry let him talk and sounded whiney in doing it, the Texan finally looked at him and said, “Have at it.” So he uses a marvelous Southwest colloquialism to give Romney permission to proceed. That one may go down with Reagan’s “There you go again” to Carter. Never mind politics, American public life has not seen this kind of camera presence since maybe John Wayne. Men like him and women admire him. And he seems to be getting used to the debate format. On or off stage, he’s got a commanding and theatrical presence.

Jim: Wow. And Gingrich?

Obi-Wan: So we’re surprised that he’s the smartest and best debater? (Can somebody please go back and research the statements by pundits who said his campaign was over?) It may eventually come down to him and Perry, since Romney can’t really move his numbers and last night will eventually lower Mitt’s standing.

Jim: How about the rest of the field? Cain, Bachmann, Santorum, Paul?

Obi-Wan: Again, look at the theater here. Cain is the missionary and self-made legend, Bachmann the energetic legislative fighter, Santorum the bright graduate student as former officeholder, and Paul the smart (if slightly annoying) professorial type who’s got hold of some solid libertarian ideas about government. Mix them in with the other three and the GOP sure seems an exciting place to be. Talk about diversity!

Jim: Now, did I hear you correctly when you said recently that you think these debates are a “ten-strike” for Republicans?

Obi-Wan: Precisely. This is devastating to the “Gatekeeper Media Filter.” People who aren’t political junkies or activists — people who are new to politics — are not finding what Washington types tell them to expect. All this is just very different from the Huffington Post caricature of the party.

Jim: I’d like to believe that, but . . . can you prove it?

Obi-Wan: Irrefutably. (chuckling) Last night, David Gergen was delighting his CNN bosses by saying the debates were helping Obama. However, decades of systematic research by several noted scientific institutes have established that if Gergen makes an observation about the state of play in American politics, the opposite is always true. I invoke here “Gergen’s Law.”

Tags: Debates , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich , Obi Wan Kenobi , Rick Perry

9-9-9: The Usual Number of Prime-Time Viewers of Bloomberg News


The Christie endorsement of Romney and the news about the Iranian plot prevented the usual all-debate content of the Morning Jolt, but there’s still plenty of reaction in today’s edition, and it seems like another night for Rick Perry that just didn’t go as hoped:

The First Debate Where the In-Attendance Audience Was Bigger than the Television Audience

If Republican candidates debate on the Bloomberg News channel, and no one can watch it because their cable system doesn’t carry it, does it mean that a tree falling in the forest makes more of a sound?

Exurban Jon: “Bonus note to the GOP: Next time, choose a station I can tune in without hacking into the Arecibo Radio Telescope.”

John Tabin: “This debate has all the edge-of-your-seat heart-pounding excitement that we’ve come to expect from Charlie Rose.”

To their credit, the debate did get a bit wonkier than its predecessors. After Newt Gingrich ripped into the Medicare’s method for determining which treatments to cover, Jonathan Martin asked, “Who had ‘not a single urologist’ in the first hour tonite?”

John Podhoretz noticed that early on, the questioning focused on some surprising figures: “So Mitt Romney is the frontrunner. It’s 21 minutes in the debate. He’s spoken for 90 seconds.”

About a half-hour in, another key candidate seemed strangely quiet, and Josh Trevino noticed: “Man, too bad Rick Perry couldn’t be here for this debate.” Ryan Streeter timed it: “We’re going on 28 minutes without hearing from Perry.”

Later, Romney did get some tough questions on TARP, and the format of his answer was an easy softball for Jonah’s mockery: “Was Romney’s answer long? Yes. Was all of it great? No. Would he like to answer it differently? Maybe. Does he like rhetorical qs? Yes!”

Michele Bachmann offered a substantive criticism of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, that it would open up the door to a national sales tax in addition to income taxes, and could then be later increased by Democratic presidents and Congresses, and one not-so-substantive criticism, arguing that “if you take the 9-9-9 and turn it upside down,  you’ll see the devil’s in the details.”

Mary Katharine Ham: “Bachmann also thinks the 9-9-9 plan could lead to an economic Beelzebubble.”

I hate to sound like a broken record, but this seemed to be the fourth straight weak debate performance for Rick Perry, and for this one, it was less the weakness of his answers than their infrequency and indistinctiveness. He seemed to fade into the background for much of the night.

The boss: “Perry has as much energy as Dorothy when she’s about to fall asleep in the poppy field.”

David Freddoso: “Perry played it safe, and lost.”

Phil Klein: “Perry makes Pawlenty look like a world champion debater.”

Larry Sabato: “Romney EASY winner, virtually untouched, PLUS he gets to keep Cain as main challenger. The script Mitt wanted to write for tonight.”

A surprising assessment from Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: “”I was po, before I was Poor,’ Herman Cain. He’s the only one with optimism and a positive view of the future. Perry is sleep walking.”

Melissa Clouthier sees big trouble in the way the GOP seemed to drift in this debate: “So the last couple years don’t matter? GOP back to loving TARP, bailouts, Greenspan, the Fed, and government in general?”

Tags: Debates , Mitt Romney , Rick Perry

Tonight’s Division of Labor


My short, quick, quippy responses to the debate can be found on Twitter. My big roundup will be in tomorrow’s Morning Jolt. If there’s anything game-changing tonight, I’ll be writing about it here.

So far, Herman Cain has pledged to eliminate the deficit in his first fiscal year, Rick Perry says he would work with both sides of the aisle, and Mitt Romney says the key is to have a president who is “a leader.” So far, this isn’t the detailed, wonky debate that Bloomberg and the Washington Post pledged. The live feed can be found here.

Tags: Debates

Tonight’s Debate: Starting to Approach Crunch Time...


Believe it or not, it’s debate night again, 9 p.m. kickoff, on Fox News Channel, live from Orlando. Yesterday I taped some discussion of the outlook for the debate with Fox Business News, and excerpts of that interview are airing throughout the day.

To quote Yogi Berra, “It gets late early out there,” in that despite the fact that we’re in late September, and have about five weeks to the filing deadline in South Carolina (which would officially set the field) and about four months and change until the Iowa caucuses (though that could change), the window of opportunity is closing for most of the candidates in the field.

In most polls, both nationally and in the early key primary states, it is a two-man race between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Before the last debate, the conventional wisdom was that Michele Bachmann needed to have a dramatic, aggressive performance to get the spotlight back on herself and to take Perry down a peg. Her tough criticism of Perry’s Gardasil decision and stance on illegal immigration appeared to do that . . . until her infamous suggestion later in the evening that Gardasil could cause mental retardation, which may have done irreparable damage to her candidacy. As recently as August 9, she was less than two percentage points behind Rick Perry in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Today she has slipped behind Ron Paul, trails Mitt Romney by about 13 percentage points, and trails Perry by more than 20 percentage points.

Tonight, she faces the same challenge, with the bar set even higher: she needs to crack the foundation of Perry’s support while avoiding any criticism or charge that makes her appear loose with the facts, reckless, or out of the mainstream.

Perry’s past debate performances haven’t been bad enough to hurt him significantly, but he’s actually lost a little ground in the polls in the past two weeks. Some have wondered if Perry’s back surgery from the summer has left him with lingering fatigue issues; his performances in the debates’ first halves have been significantly better than his second halves.

Perry can serve up red meat with the best of them, but the question is what else he can do, and whether he seems like a man capable of building a national consensus to move national policies in a conservative direction. As Rich put it, “to become president of the United States, he’ll have to reach persuadables who don’t value outrageousness for its own sake. If he’s never willing to back down, he’ll have to go — should he win the nomination — all the way to November 2012 defending the notion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is possibly guilty of treason.” From what the Texas governor has shown so far, a Perry presidency would leave the country with the cultural standoff of the Bush years — much whining and carping from the usual corners about the reckless, dumb cowboy Texan running roughshod in the White House. While many Republicans would like their nominee to wear that criticism as a badge of honor, others would prefer a nominee who can demonstrate a style of national leadership distinct from Bush’s. What’s more, Perry may face more criticism on Gardasil and will almost certainly face withering criticism that his policies amount to amnesty, and perhaps that too many of the jobs created in Texas during Perry’s reign have gone to illegal immigrants.

Romney finds himself in a position that ordinarily would cause some candidates to panic, but he and his team seem pretty confident that they’re playing the long game the right way. He still leads New Hampshire by a wide margin, is a strong second everywhere, and still matches up quite well against Obama in the head-to-head polling. From this, Romney may try to argue that Perry isn’t electable, but it’s not so clear that a lot of Republican primary voters want to hear that message this early. With Obama looking so weak at the moment, the argument that “your proposals are right on the merits but don’t poll well” won’t fly with grassroots conservatives eager to see the government shift dramatically to the right on January 20, 2013.

For former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, tonight is a big night, with his national television debut.* He brings a more libertarian view on most issues, and will likely echo Ron Paul on foreign policy and drug legalization if the topic is raised. Johnson might be an interesting test of whether the collection of views we might call “Ron Paul-ism” works better or worse without Ron Paul himself.

For everyone else, the opportunities to break out of the background are diminishing. Newt Gingrich will probably pound the moderators and make some good arguments, but his energetic, pugnacious debate performances just haven’t translated into poll strength or even donations, it would seem. Herman Cain has won a lot of fans with his affable performance in past debates, but he appears to have seen his breakout moment come and go. (For one, brief, shining moment, Cain was second in the RealClearPolitics average: June 27, 2011.) Rick Santorum, too, has shown occasional moments of energy and passion in the debates, but he’s still struggling to hit 5 percent in Iowa, a state that should be his bread-and-butter. Jon Huntsman had an awful appearance in the last debate, and would be well advised to avoid the corny jokes or trying-too-hard cultural references. With 10 percent in New Hampshire, it’s not unthinkable that Huntsman could end up having a bigger impact on this race in the near future, but he still faces a steep uphill climb.

* UPDATE: In the comments, a reader contends that Johnson’s inclusion in the Greenville, South Carolina, debate back on May 5 constitutes his “debut,” although that debate featured a very limited field of Tim Pawlenty, Paul, Santorum, Cain and Johnson — no Romney, no Bachmann, no Perry, no Gingrich. (At the time, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels were also being mentioned as likely candidates).

That debate had 3.2 million viewers; by contrast, the debate on Fox News Channel in August had 5.1 million viewers. For perspective, last night Bill O’Reilly had 3.26 million viewers.

Tags: Debates , Michele Bachmann , Mitt Romney , Rick Perry

The Battle Is Joined, as We Used to Say Before Tucson Changed Everything


Today’s Morning Jolt is pretty much entirely about Wednesday night’s GOP debate, and quotes 25 different folks from their reactions on Twitter, during and immediately after the festivities . . .

Andrea Tantaros: “After tonight it looks like a 2 person race. My headline — Perry and Romney: the Obama and Clinton of 2012.”

So which one ends up as Secretary of State?

S. E. Cupp wonders about a bigger unity ticket: “Is a Perry/Romney ticket feasible? More importantly, is it too good-looking?”

Pete Dominick scoffs, “Bruce Wayne & Clark Kent 2012.” (You knew Perry would be Batman in that scenario, right? Why do I see the final Perry-Romney debate going down like the climax of The Dark Knight Returns?)

Rick Perry

All eyes were on the new guy, who just happens to be leading the field. I see a lot to like in Rick Perry, but I have those nagging doubts. For starters, I walk into this decision knowing I have to balance how much I like him against the criteria of whether enough voters in enough states to amount to 270 electoral votes like him. There’s no point in getting the GOP to nominate my ideal candidate — say, the mind of Friedrich Hayek with the charisma of Salma Hayek — if the country won’t elect him or her.

On Perry, I like the tough-talking Texan persona, and I know that he’s a different man, with a distinctly different record, than George W. Bush. I just don’t know if those low-information wishy-washy independents will grasp that, or whether they’ll hear the voice and the title “Texas governor” and just write him off. They shouldn’t, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “You don’t go into a presidential decision with the voters you would like to have; you go into the election with the voters you have.” Perry’s decision — quickly rescinded — to mandate the vaccination of Texas schoolgirls for HPV, a decision which came up Wednesday night, appears to be an epic mental pratfall. We all have them, but it’s worrisome to have one in a decision that strikes such an emotional chord and that seems so basic in its relation to civil liberties. Another comment by Perry — that he’ll do “whatever it takes to preserve human life” — feels a little too casual in its dismissal of balancing the costs and benefits. A 45 mile-per-hour speed limit would help preserve human life. So would confiscating every steak knife in the country.

Ed Morrissey: “Perry didn’t do anything to dent his momentum. This will start settling into a binary race, and may not be much room for new entries.”

Our old friend David Freddoso declares that the biggest event of debate was that “the GOP frontrunner says Social Security is a ponzi scheme. Did he go too far, or is this twilight of the idols?”

Mary Katharine Ham sees it as a high-stakes gambling strategy from Perry: “After tonight, we’ll know whether we can admit SS is a broken promise or whether the politically palatable lie is all we can handle.”

Certainly, the opposition thinks Rick Perry committed inadvertent self-destruction by doubling down on his comparison of Social Security to a Ponzi scheme. Howard Fineman reports, “”Perry just lost the election,” said Romney’s top advisor. “He said he’d abolish Social Security! You can’t win federal office saying that.”

Melissa Clothier predicts, “The media will say Perry lost the debate. Perry’s poll numbers go up.”

Jon Henke notices, “Good sign for @GovernorPerry: @ThinkProgress thinks he lost.”

I hate to disappoint those who wanted to see a lot of reaction to Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, but . . . there just wasn’t much discussion of those guys last night.

Tags: Debates , Mitt Romney , Rick Perry

Something For Everyone to Love and Hate Last Night


A whole smorgasbord of debate reactions in today’s Morning Jolt, the last for a week:

Chuck Todd said the “cheap cliché” will be that “Rick Perry won the debate.” Stephen Hayes retorted, “Sometimes clichés are true.”

Michele Bachmann:

Emily Zanotti: “Tim Pawlenty believes that God has blessed America. Unless you’re Michele Bachmann. Then, He’s totally not into you.”

Mitt Romney:

Andrea Tarantos: “No clear winner tonight but Romney wins in the sense he escapes unscathed, which is goal as frontrunner. Until Sat, that is.”

Political Math: “Romney has retired to his cigar room to stroke his cat and growl, ‘Excellent. As I have planned.’”

Mark Ambinder: “Good night for Gingrich, Romney, Paul and Santorum. Don’t think Ames calculus changes. Pawlenty and Bachmann fought to a draw.”

J. P. Freire: “Mitt says he believes in people who believe in freedom, though I assume he doesn’t mean freedom from the individual mandate.”

Tim Pawlenty:

Pawlenty had this wonderful joke that began with him saying that if anyone could show a serious reform plan for Social Security, or Medicare, or Medicaid from Barack Obama, he would cook them dinner. (laughter) “Or mow their lawn.” (more laughter) “But if Mitt can find it, I have to limit it to one acre.”


Aw, governor.

David Freddoso: “Pawlenty had the debate performance he needed….in the last debate. Probably not enough now.”

Jonah: “If you hit mute, Tim Pawlenty looks like he’s explaining to a 3rd grader why he has to spend a week in detention.”

Melissa Clouthier: “Pawlenty is over…  I really thought Bachmann and Pawlenty hurt each other.”

Ron Paul:

One of the more interesting topics was Iran, its nuclear program, intelligence-gathering and a dangerous world. Ron Paul played a central role.

Moe Lane: “Did Tim Pawlenty just advocate Mossad’s assassination campaign of Iranian nuclear scientists? I mean, YES, of course, but damn.”

Rick Klein of ABC News: “Ron Paul is ready to “tolerate” Iran getting a nuclear weapon. This is why, if he wins the straw poll, the GOP has a little problem.”

NRO’s Dan Foster summarizes Ron Paul’s view, “nuclear theocracy is okay because the CIA was overenthusiastic in 1953.”

There is increasing consensus that Paul is likely to win Saturday’s straw poll.

Rick Santorum:

Alex Burns of Politico: “Santorum: ‘Iran is not Iceland.’ Politifact ruling: mostly true.”

Jon Huntsman:

Greg Gutfeld pays tribute to Jon Huntsman’s younger days in music: “Huntsman is running on his record. Which is, his record.”

Jonah: “Huntsman looks like he’s waging an epic battle with acid reflux.”

Bethany Shondark: “I like the hope vs. solutions line from Huntsman. First thing about these closing statements that I didn’t hate.”

Tags: Debates , Jon Huntsman , Mitt Romney , Ron Paul , Tim Pawlenty


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