Polls were showing Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul in close striking range with each other - as Gingrich slipped a little during a week where his tongue got him into trouble. The expectations were that many of those on the stage would be setting their sights on the former Speaker.
This was fundamentally a good debate to watch. There were the expected engagements, particularly when Michelle Bachmann took on Newt Gingrich over his 7 figure consulting engagement with the GSE's Fannie and Freddie, and then again when Michelle Bachmann confronted Ron Paul over his foreign policy viewpoints vis a vis Iran. Mitt Romney was attacked on the basis of his 'flip flop' history, as well as his history in Massachusetts.
I made a number of comments and observations while watching the debate in yesterday's post, so for today's wrap, let's go right to the grades - from the bottom up...
Ron Paul - D-
Ron Paul fundamentally is not an electable candidate, not only because of his odious associations and embracing of fringe organizations and viewpoints, but entirely because of his misguided and clueless foreign policy. Much of this was covered in yesterday's post on Ron Paul that included links to Ace of Spades for a full set of connections to Paul's questionable base -and the Wall Street Journal today has the icing on this cake with the commentary, "Why Ron Paul Can't Win".
As Victor Davis Hanson notes in his recap on the National Review:
Ron Paul’s isolationism got a little eerie tonight; he seemed to fault the U.S. for radical Islamic terrorism on the rise in the Middle East, especially in the context of Iran. Fairly or not, he always seems to cite the U.S. as a causal agent for radical Islamic violence, which is not borne out by the facts. In short, Paul seems oblivious that he ends up parroting the Muslim world’s critique against America. Paul doesn’t remember 1962 very well, since Kennedy practiced brinkmanship, not, as he implied, dialogue with Khrushchev.I actually think that VDH is being far too kind and polite towards the Paul vision - which is based on seeing what he wants to believe as opposed to believing what he is seeing. Bachmann's smackdown of Paul in particular on Iran's nuclear ambitions really highlighted that Ron Paul is far closer in his world view to Dennis Kucinich, George Galloway, and the Islamofascists than he is to the mainstream GOP.
Jon Huntsman - C
One of the challenges with Huntsman is that he seems to be trying real hard to be a conservative - and there still remains that doubt, in his mind and in the viewer, that he really isn't that much of a conservative. Almost every answer seems to come back to addressing the issue of domestic economics as being the source of whatever problem he is being questioned about. It is as if he knows this is his best point of attack against the Administration, but also wants to avoid going from this point as he might let slip some of his more liberal viewpoints. His is a candidacy that isn't getting or going to get traction within the GOP...and serving in the Obama Administration didn't help this view.
Rick Santorum - B+
This was one of Rick's better debates - although he still had to fight for air time, and Bachmann took his usual role as the one who would wield the clue by four at Ron Paul's head. He is very strong on his social conservativism - but somehow just didn't excel to the level that Bachmann did in this debate....
Newt Gingrich - B+
Under fire for most of the night on a number of key issues, in particular from Moderator Megyn Kelly on his proposal for addressing 'judicial activism', and from Michelle Bachmann for his consulting engagement at Fannie / Freddie - Newt generally withstood the fire pretty well. He needs to address the fire coming at him regarding Fannie / Freddie a lot better - and did so prior to the debate when he apologized for his retort attack on Romney earlier in the week from the hard left viewpoint. Still, under the questioning by Bachmann, Gingrich needs to focus on the fact that he was engaged as a consultant and was compensated for fulfilling the terms of his contract. Perhaps even release the contract / statement of work he was engaged under.
His proposed judicial reform reflects that there is something that needs to be done, as Gingrich indicates, to counter not only judicial activism but the perception that the Judicial Branch of government is above the Executive and Legislative Branches. However, the approach seems that it is not entirely thought out or vetted to the point that it needs to be vetted. In fact, it was far too close to FDR's efforts to stack the courts. As a historian, Gingrich should know better. He also needs to stop appearing condescending when he is challenged or when he puts the academic hat on top of his head.
While his apology to Romney goes a long way, I have many concerns and worries about a Gingrich campaign against Obama - particularly since Gingrich does get that there is no way in hell that Obama will agree to 7 Lincoln-Douglas style debates with him. I doubt Obama would even agree to more than 2 debates - to lessen his risk...
Rick Perry - A
Rick Perry had his best debate so far. He had the line of the night with being the Tim Tebow of the GOP Primary Race - but as was countered by Hot Air's Allahpundit's twitter quip that Tim Tebow is hoping he will not become the Rick Perry of the NFL. For every good point that Perry brings up, he also continues to press with some ideas that just are not really viable - like a part-time Congress in the same model as the Texas legislature. He is far better making a cogent case on border security than before and his body language at the podium is also a lot better. Unfortunately for Perry, the hole he dug himself into at the start of his participation in the debates is such that he will not be able to rebound and return to the top tier.
Michelle Bachmann - A
Like Perry, this was Michelle's best debate so far. She only got herself into trouble during her sparring with Newt Gingrich when he questioned her accuracy and veracity with facts. Her Gardasil moment was the first that came to me along those lines and that hurt her in the exchange. I also think that the former Speaker has far more areas of vulnerability to attack from the right than a consulting engagement with Fannie / Freddie. The problems at Fannie / Freddie are owned by others far more than by Gingrich. She still needs experience - and has to really get a role within the GOP House leadership to get that experience.
Mitt Romney - A
Romney used the same strategy as he has had throughout the debates - be solid. He didn't inflict any damage on his rivals, in particular Gingrich, and in return was able to parry the attacks and shots made at him - primarily by the moderators (Wallace and the gay marriage 'gotcha'; Baier on 'electability'). He continues to look and act the most Presidential of those on stage. He benefited from Bachmann (and others) doing the attacks for him. He is finally getting better at parrying the questions on his two biggest challenges - flip / flop and Mass Healthcare - but the answers do little to enthuse the rank and file GOP conservatives that he really is a conservative. (Noting that the National Review Magazine effectively endorsed Romney earlier this week, Rush Limbaugh was noting, "...Remember when National Review was the voice of conservatism...")
Romney supporters are calling this a big win for the candidate - but it's one where while he did better than Gingrich in the overall debate - Gingrich's numbers aren't going to be hurt by his performance. He remains the candidate the establishment GOP prefers - but still can't get a breakthrough to reach the conservative voter yet. Which is going to be the most critical constituency - the independents in the general election - or getting more conservative support so that Romney can be the nominee for the general election?
FNC Moderation - B+
Chris Wallace was Mr. Gotcha - asked a lot of the 'gotcha' questions even if they were gotcha questions. Will be interesting to see the dynamics between Wallace and Romney this weekend on Fox News Sunday. He wasn't the only one with the 'gotcha' question though - Kelly on Gingrich over his propose judicial reforms, Cavuto on Perry, etc. Baier started off very well by going right to the 'electability' question - that was one of the best openings. Unlike other moderators, this group really didn't insert themselves into the debate - or argue with the candidates. They used good judgment at times to let the discussion between the candidates go - but then were a little too lax on enforcing the time rules on other times.
Overall, I think the FNC Moderators stirred the drink to get the debate going - had some very good questions, with no real softballs towards any of the candidates, and then let the debate happen.
I still haven't made a firm choice as to which candidate to support - but I am leaning far closer to Mitt Romney over Newt Gingrich than I have had before now. This past week has reminded me of my concerns over the weaknesses and faults that Gingrich has - and the electability question also has me trending towards Romney. Neither is the perfect candidate. The perfect candidate, for this race, just doesn't exist.