Last Night's Debate

The essential dynamic of the GOP nominating contest has been clear for some time now: Mitt Romney, for a variety of reasons, seems unable to increase his support above the 25-30% range, providing a huge opening for one of the more conservative candidates to emerge as the anti-Romney candidate, but none of the other candidates seem able to grab that baton, still less run with it. Last night’s debate was yet another chance for someone to emerge as the un-Romney choice of the GOP base, but once again, that chance was lost.

Many commentators are proclaiming the candidacy of Gov. Rick Perry dead after he experienced a moment of brain freeze on the stage. After noting he would completely eliminate three government agencies, Perry could only name two, and floundered on the stage trying to remember the third, eventually giving up, and sheepishly looking at the audience, saying “Oops.” Painful to watch, to be sure. And, it was especially damning that the third agency Perry could not recall was the Energy Department, seeing as he has made energy policy a central focus of his campaign platform. But, I think that voters put less stock in such moments than Beltway pundits. They have experienced such moments themselves too – who hasn’t had a brain freeze moment? Nonetheless, up to that point, Perry was having a strong performance and, given his previous lackluster performances, last night could have been his breakthrough movement and he missed that chance. Of course, Perry still has a huge war chest and if he can translate that into an effective organization on the ground in Iowa, where more people will see his commercials, which have been good, than remember a bad debate two months prior in Michigan, he could yet emerge as Romney’s principal challenger.

Herman Cain is embroiled in controversy in the face of accusations of sexual harassment. Last night, the GOP audience booed the debate moderator who asked Cain about the questions, and he was able to deflect the charges with ease. But, the news cycle is more relentless than a single question in a debate format. The questions will not go away and Cain’s own inconsistencies in responding have only given the story further legs. First he could not recall any settlement with one of the accusers, then he said there was a settlement but it was essentially a termination settlement, but then it turned out that it was much larger than that. Then, he noted, at the time correctly, that the charges were anonymous, but now two women have come forward and put a face on the charges. Then, his campaign manager said one of the women’s sons worked at Politico, which broke the story, and that they had confirmed the relationship, but that turned out to be wrong. Americans are a forgiving people, as Cain said last night in reference to Perry’s brain freeze, but they are not in the mood to be forgiving about sexual transgressions. Ask Joe Paterno. Ask the U.S. bishops.

Given the choice of a brain freeze moment or a charge of sexual misconduct, which would you rather face?

The person best positioned to capitalize on Romney’s anemic support and the self-inflicted foibles of Perry and Cain is Newt Gingrich. But, last night, for the first time in the debates, we saw the old snarling Newt, not the self-confident cheerful Newt. He twice got into a nasty back-and-forth with moderator Maria Bartiromo in which he started by going down the “blame the media” road he has trod effectively in past debates, but then he glared and sounded dismissive in the extreme. The audience in the hall cheered, but every woman in America knows what is like to have a man look down the full length of his nose at her, glaring, and dismissing what she has to say. Gingrich needs to be the happy warrior, a la Reagan, if he wants to emerge as the alternative to Romney. And, he needs to raise some campaign cash fast to mount an effective ground game in Iowa.

None of the other candidates had a breakthrough moment. Michele Bachmann repeated her belief that everyone should have to pay some taxes, even the poor, failing to note that the poor do pay taxes: They pay FICA and Medicare taxes on their wages and they pay sales taxes on virtually all of their income which, being poor, they must spend on essentials. When will a debate moderator ask her: Congresswoman, are you suggesting you would eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit and if so, how many more millions of Americans would be pushed into poverty by such an action?

Santorum seemed especially flat. Cong. Ron Paul is so obviously smart but, like many smart people before him, he speaks in an idiom that is little understood beyond the circle of those who already agree with him. Huntsman would be running away with this race if he had run 20 years ago, but today’s GOP is not your Dad’s GOP.

And, what of Romney's performance? He was smooth, he did not lose his cool as he did last time, but he also had a singularly unconvincing reply to the waffler accusation. Instead of asserting his consistency as if it were a fact of nature, which it is not, he should develop a reply that admits he has changed positions on issues like abortion and explain his reason for the change. Everybody loves a convert.

The GOP conundrum is the same as it was this summer. The GOP base is unenthusiastic, and some are downright hostile, about Romney, but there is as yet no credible alternative. Nonetheless, someone will punch their ticket in Iowa. If it is Perry, no one will remember his brain freeze last night. If it is Gingrich, it is not clear he will have the resources to build on a surprise showing or if he can keep his own inner demons in check. If it is Cain, it is unclear either the candidate or his campaign will have the discipline to manage the onslaught of primaries that follow. Remember, at this time four years ago, Hillary Clinton was leading all the national polls and seemed destined to win in Iowa too. But, the Barack Obama gave a great speech at the Iowa Democratic Party fundraising dinner, he had an effective ground game in place, and he went on to win that state’s caucuses. The media, bless their hearts, pronounced Clinton’s campaign dead and buried, but she came back to win New Hampshire, and the slugfest went on through the entire primary cycle.

Like the sky outside my study this morning, the GOP race looks as cloudy as ever.

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