The GOP candidate forum sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint in South Carolina yesterday was not your average debate. Instead of “gotcha” questions directed from media analysts to the candidates, and instead of the one or two minute replies, the candidates had twenty minutes on stage, standing before the questioners, looking a bit like students auditioning for a role. (Think “A Chorus Line” without the tights.) This format encouraged longer, more thoughtful answers, and, to a degree, it provoked them. All to the good.
A couple of things were clear to me, if not to other commentators. If your principal concern is to have a president who has thought through issues, who does not simply rely on the briefings of experts, Newt Gingrich is you man. He was not just fluent in his answers, as was Ron Paul, but he actually engaged the issues in ways that allowed him to make points the question did not require. On immigration, for example, he re-directed the question away from the usual immigrant-bashing one finds on the GOP campaign trail and made a point about the need for assimilation among immigrants. You can agree or not with his view on the matter, but his answer allowed Gingrich to avoid an anti-Latino video clip that could come back to haunt him and it allowed him to sound profoundly patriotic. I do not agree about the need to make English the official language of the country, but there is no denying that Gingrich’s answer was both politically astute and substantive. I am baffled that he is not doing better in the polls at this point.
Ron Paul also benefited from this format. The congressman is undoubtedly smart, and occasionally very funny. When asked to list some of the government programs he would cut, he opined that he would rather give a list of what he would keep because that would be a shorter list. But, the limits of his strict ideological worldview were also on display when he got into a back-and-forth with Professor Robbie George about the 14th Amendment. I suspect that Professor George was doing a service to his party in trying to expose the limits of libertarian philosophy and commend him for it. Erick Erickson, of RedState.com, criticized George for getting too “in the weeds” with his questions, and one had the thought that George thought he was conducting a graduate seminar. But, he made Paul clarify his preference for federalism over a federal anti-abortion policy and that is a useful thing to clarify.
Michele Bachmann is very good at delivering soundbites, so the standard debate format works fine for her. She survived this forum because her passion came through, even if you occasionally felt she was getting in over her head on policy and principles and they way they intersect. If you look back at some old video of a Ronald Reagan press conference, you had the same feeling: You start with the fear that a train wreck could happen at any minute, but then, when the train wreck doesn’t come, you recognize that while Bachmann may not understand all the in’s and out’s of a given position, nor how they relate and conflict with other policies and positions, this is a person who knows her own mind and is committed to a set of core values. Do not count her out.
The format did not favor Mitt Romney. He is undoubtedly a bright man but he is also a highly scripted man. Whereas Bachmann appeared passionate, Gingrich learned, and Paul convinced, Romney was smooth, almost slippery. On the issue of abortion he did not appear nervous, but he did appear cautious and caution does not wear as well as conviction in a GOP primary. I always have the feeling with Romney that what he really cares about is getting the best table in a restaurant. It is all self-promotion. Romney is not tanking in the polls simply because Gov. Perry got in the race. Romney is tanking because he does not inspire people to stick with him because he does not convey the kind of passion or conviction that makes you think he will stick with himself.
It is a shame that Gov. Huntsman was not on the stage as it would have been interesting to see how he could perform in this format. But, I applaud the idea to keep the also-rans off the stage. It is almost impossible to find anything out about anybody when there are ten people on the stage. I hope that this format will be tried again as the field narrows over the coming months. DeMint should consider scheduling another such forum immediately before the South Carolina primary which is likely to prove decisive again next year. It is better to get to know these candidates in depth than to see how they can parrot quotes written by others.