The Dartmouth Debate

All the challenges facing the different candidates were on full display at last night’s debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Nor are the problems merely issues of bad debate prep, although some of the candidates could use better preparation to be sure. Each candidate faces a slightly different challenge in these forums and none of them except Newt Gingrich seems to rise to the occasion.

Gingrich was not only the first candidate to garner spontaneous applause for one of his answers, when he attacked Ben Bernanke and the press in a single breath. He also was the first candidate to interject himself forcefully and without being asked a question into a discussion of the effects of the European debt crisis, showing not only a command of the issue, adding something the previous candidates had neglected, but showing himself as the kind of guy who is willing to be pushy, to be assertive and combative when needed. It was very effective. Perhaps Gingrich was a bit overly flush with his awareness that he was again doing well for he went a tad far in suggesting that Chris Dodd and Barney Frank go to prison.

Mitt Romney seems not to understand that he is so polished in his responses that he comes across as slick and, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time on both sides of many issues, slickness is a problem. He needs to find something awkward, or at least idiosyncratic, about himself or his views and share it with the audience and defend it no matter whether it is popular or not. It would not hurt him one iota at this point to mispronounce a word, or get a fact wrong, and then correct it. Romney seems to want to hover above the rest of the candidates, but he is also hovering above the voters.

Does anyone else get the feeling that if Herman Cain gave up slogans for Lent, he would have nothing to say? He seems not to understand the criticisms of his 9-9-9 plan: Last night, at least, he simply asserted those criticisms were incorrect and cited the work of his economic advisors, whom he again failed to name, and their “dynamic analysis” which must be pretty dynamic indeed if they are the only ones capable of claiming his plan is revenue neutral. There is one part of the Cain mantra that is especially obnoxious. When defending his 9-9-9 plan he notes that he wants to “expand the base” of the tax code. By this he means that the many millions of Americans who are so poor they do not make enough money to pay any personal income tax, these people should be made to pay. Nice.

Ron Paul reached out to New Hampshire’s Independents, who can vote in the GOP primary, by pointing out that the regulatory regime that all the candidates denounce did not just start with Obama, but that government and Wall Street have been too chummy for a long time. He also denounced former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. But, the Congressman sometimes forgets that he needs to reach out to those who do not what he is talking about when he throws out the name “Keynes” and praises “the Austrians.”

Poor Jon Huntsman. He tries to be funny, but his attempts at humor are too scripted. Last night, he said he thought Cain’s 9-9-9 plan was about the price of a pizza. Ha-ha. Huntsman was better when he promised not to attack Romney’s religion. But, he missed his chance at a great one-liner when asked whom he would look to, or the type of person he would look to, for economic advice. He answered “someone like my Dad.” He should have answered, “I think Mitt would make a good Secretary of Commerce, Gov. Perry could be Secretary of Energy, and Cong. Paul should head up the Federal Reserve.”

Michele Bachmann had a good night but not a great night, and with her dwindling poll numbers, I think she needed a great night. I do not know why she has not had more fun with the fact that she is the only woman on the stage. Nor, why she has not been more combative, reserving her barbs for President Obama, who is not on the stage, and neglecting those who are on the stage.

Sen. Rick Santorum always finds a way to relate a discussion of economic issues to family issues and he does so in a way that resonates with conservative, religiously motivated voters. But, he usually waits to the very end of the debate to score. Perhaps this reflects a commitment to what might be called a “dessert strategy” aiming to leave voters with a good taste in their mouths. But, he, like Bachmann, needs to draw a clearer distinction between himself and his opponents and the fact that he is the only candidate who consistently relates economic issues to his concerns about traditional families is a distinction he needs to make early and often.

All these candidates, except Huntsman, addressed the Values Voter Summit last weekend. All of them recognize the need to appeal to religiously motivated voters. But, in all the discussion last night about the economy, no one saw fit to invoke the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, “Whatever you do for these the least of your brethren, you did for me.” That tells a lot about the values the GOP candidates hold dear.

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