Tonight was the first Republican debate of this campaign which in my humble opinion is getting started way too early. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I not only watched all 90 minutes but commandeered the computer in order to take a few notes. I sort of went back and forth on how to relay my comments a) without being up all night, and b) being just thorough enough not to be boring.
So first, I’ll give my general impressions of the format. Second, I’ll give brief summaries of my opinions of the candidates’ performance in the debate. Third, I’ll give my overall conclusions of the implications of the whole debate. Disclaimer: very little of this will reflect any opinions outside of the context of the debate, however discussion after the fact will undoubtedly lead there.
First of all 10 candidates is simply way too many. It is nearly impossible to really get a good impression of 10 different people in 90 minutes. Since about as much time is spent asking questions and following up as answering, roughly you’re looking at about 45 total minutes of talk time…that’s, on the average, 4 ½ minutes per person.
The moderator, as some of you are aware is one of my least favorite media personalities, so I will not attempt to hide my bias. Chris Matthews is as full of himself as any one human can be, but with two notable exceptions, most of the debate was fairly well-managed.
The first exception was an instance where Chris literally grilled Huckabee on a comment he made about Romney, apparently about his Mormonism (having trouble recalling the details). Chris asked him at least 5 times to justify this previous quote.
The second exception was way more sneaky. Chris went back to Giuliani 4 times with a question about his abortion stance, and did so under the pretense of giving him a chance to “clarify” his position on the subject. Finally Giuliani was forced to state his Pro-Choice stance, his obviously weakest conservative issue, and Chris left him alone. (I wanted to turn it off at one opint because it looked like Chris was simply going to play Hardball with 10 people.)
The questions were varied (coming from Chris himself, from some other guy from Politico.com and apparently from a forum on the Internet), and ranged from the rather obvious, “Who do you think would make the best candidate for President and why?” to the goofy, “What do you think about the idea of Bill Clinton being back in the White House?” to the stupid, “What do you like least about this country?”
Fmr Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney
Good Moment: nothing stands out.
Bad Moment: nothing stands out.
Overall: very, very polished.
TX Congressman Ron Paul
Good Moment: The problem with the Government is that they always seem to want to choose between prohibiting and subsidizing.
Bad Moment: I guess in medicine I had to make tough decisions.
Overall: Said “policmen of the world” way too many times. Seemed just offended by the whole role of government, thus not inspiring anyone’s desire to put him there.
CO Congressman Tom Tancredo:
Good moment: very adroitly separated the term, “women’s rights” from “abortion rights”.
Bad moment: Chris literally cut him off mid-syllable and left him looking like a tool.
Overall: very aware of the angle behind most of the questions. Comes across as an intellectual, sort of a nerd.
Fmr. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani:
Good moment: successfully answered the (rather from left-field) question on the difference between Sunni and Shiite.
Bad Moment: The twelfth time that Chris came at him (to give him a chance to clarify, of course) with the abortion question.
Overall: Not shy about citing his stats in New York.
Fmr. VA Gov. Jim Gilmore:
Good moment: Karl Rove is not the issue.
Bad moment: nothing stands out.
Overall: struck a very consistent theme of consistent unwavering conservative.
Fmr. WI Gov. Tommy Thompson:
Good moment: 1900 vetoes as governor
Bad Moment: None stick out
Overall: When I was a governor…
KS Sen. Sam Brownback:
Good moment: This is a coalition party, different ideas and different views, but we’ll win on issues.
Bad moment: three state solution in Iraq.
Overall: Christian conservative, family values, culture of life…etc.
AZ Sen. John McCain:
Good moment: Gov’t programs must justify their existence, set goals, and meet those goals or go out of business.
Bad moment: I will follow Bin Ladin to the gates of hell.
Overall: tried way too hard to come across as a war hawk and a domestic moderate…seemed like a caricature.
Fmr. AR Gov. Mike Huckabee:
Good moment: Corporate responsibility from top executives AND a great commentary on the role of faith in policy decision-making.
Bad moment: none come to mind.
Overall: most likely the best balance of true conservatism and poise and confidence.
CA Congressman Duncan Hunter
Good moment: talking about manufacturing/industrial base with better trade laws, and eliminating double taxations on exports, AND saying that Arnold winning as a centrist is not good enough, “we need to win the right way”
Bad moment: None stick out…
Overall: (sincerest apologies for leaving him out; he actually did well in my opinion, but I was trying to get this out in a hurry.) He did of course mention immigration a lot and specifically how effective a fence on the border has been.
Overall, what I liked most about the debate was the focus on issues. There was a surprising lack of hedging and dodging, and perhaps the short time frame contributed to that. Most of the candidates were die-hard died-in-the-wool conservatives except, oddly enough, the two “front-runners,” Giuliani and McCain, and Ron Paul, the staunch Libertarian. The constant citing of Ronald Reagan got a little old (but Nancy was sitting right there, so what do you do).
The weakest commentary came from the “front-runners” which is common (if you have nothing to lose, you might as well speak your mind—but at the top of the heap, you have market share to worry about), however the “alternative candidates were delightful at times expressing what a whole lot of conservatives have been thinking and acknowledging that the losses of the Republican party have not been due to too little “centrist” government.
Most comical: John McCain, who just came across as a fist-pounding amateur.
Most surprising: Tancredo, as he has historically had a tendency to get a little too excited, but stayed very even keel and very insightful and witty throughout.
Most boring: Mitt Romney, who just struck me as a Ken doll brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein.
Most disappointing: Ron Paul struck me as simply too aggravated and angry. He has a right to be, but anyone who appears to be saying, “I can’t believe I’m even on the stage with these idiots,” does not garner a lot of love.
Most predictable: Sam Brownback. Can you say Conservative Christian, Family Values Guy?
Romney throws Patrick Fitzgerald under the bus for ignoring the real leak in the Valerie Plame case. Paul said he deserves to go to prison anyway because he helped mislead the US into war in Iraq.
Chris going down the line and asking everybody to vote yea or nay on letting Schwarzenegger run for President…not one yes.
Schiavo?—Romney says Congress should have stayed out. Brownback believes Congress should have. McCain says they probably acted too hastily. A great little back and forth in my opinion because they were all undeniably telling the truth.
OK, who doesn’t believe in Evolution?
Essentially, though, and unfortunately, I don’t think any of the alternatives had the opportunity to really stand out from the crowd, so I don’t think the “top three” will change as a result of the debate.
I have intentionally avoided reading any online commentary on this, but I’m certain this weekend we’ll have the opportunity to read transcripts and see what the talking heads have to stay. Then again, we could simply just enjoy the weekend.