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Who Won the Debate?

Who won last night’s debate in Iowa? In part, we will need to wait until the results of tomorrow’s straw poll in Ames to find out. As I mentioned yesterday, one of the principal objectives of the participants last night was to rile up their base to get to Ames and vote. More significantly, at this stage of the campaign, with so many candidates jockeying for position, what really matters is how the candidates performed relative to each other in the eyes of fundraisers and pundits.

This latter concern was evident in the fact, arguably the most obvious and important fact from last night, that front-runner Mitt Romney escaped relatively unscathed. Tim Pawlenty did not go after Romney, he went after Bachmann. Rick Santorum did not lay a glove on Romney but he took a swipe at Ron Paul. The real competition, then, as the candidates and their strategists see it, is not to beat Romney at this stage, but to become the un-Romney candidate. If one candidate emerges quickly as the only alternative to Romney’s nomination, and the others close up shop, that candidate has the best shot at becoming the nominee.

For the second time in a row, the candidate who most needed a bounce coming out of the debate came out with mostly negative reviews for his performance: Tim Pawlenty. He went after Bachmann aggressively, arguing that she has accomplished little in Congress, compared to his own record of results as governor of Minnesota, and said her record consisted mostly of misstatements. She returned fire, comparing Pawlenty’s record of results to that of Barack Obama which, in this forum, was the equivalent of a kick to the groin. She held her own. Pawlenty failed Machiavelli’s standard for political warfare, if you strike the prince, make sure you kill him. It is difficult to see how Pawlenty’s campaign can keep itself afloat after a second disappointing performance.

Another candidate who seemed to step on his own toes was Santorum. Towards the end of the debate, he gave a strong, impassioned defense of his position that abortion should be forbidden even in cases of rape and incest. The position, which would alienate many moderate voters, was popular with the GOP social conservatives in the room and he seemed to be really connecting by presenting himself as the most principled person on the stage. But, he also took a shot at Ron Paul that seemed unnecessarily personal on the subject of gay marriage, and earned a roomful of boos.

Congressman Paul did not do himself any favors by suggesting it was no big deal if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. But, typically, the rest of the night saw him feisty and opinionated and arguing his position well. Even on Iran, those who like him believe in a neo-isolationism will be undeterred by the facts of the case: This is Paul’s strength and weakness. The most ideologically certain candidate on the stage has a worldview that can’t be shaken by mere facts. That attracts those who have drunk the libertarian Kool-Aid, but it gives most people pause.

On the other hand, Newt Gingrich scored one of the best moments of the evening when he challenged Chris Wallace for asking about the turmoil in his campaign. Gingrich said this was a gotcha question unworthy of the proceedings, and received loud applause. When Wallace persisted, Gingrich did not back down and again gained wide applause when he called Wallace’s question “Mickey Mouse” and said the candidates should be talking about the issues, winning another round of applause. Gingrich scored well in the exchange and if those who had been inclined to support a Pawlenty or a Santorum found themselves looking for a second choice, they might see in Gingrich the right combination of conservative fervor, a la Bachmann, with an actual record of legislative accomplishment and political success.

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Herman Cain did not step on his own toes, but neither did he distinguish himself last night. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman was worse. He seemed uneasy behind the lectern, his words sounded canned. While one can admire his bravery for defending his support for civil unions for gays and lesbians, his defense of his position included a line about “private belief” that will not sit well with social conservatives. Surely, Huntsman is aware that many Democrats invoke such language about distinguishing between private belief and public policy to justify their stance on abortion.

Anytime a front-runner escapes without a direct hit, it is a win. And Romney did not take a direct hit last night. I was surprised. I thought it would have made more sense for a Santorum or a Pawlenty to attack Romney’s flip-flop on abortion as a way of demonstrating their street cred than by attacking Bachmann. So, if anyone won last night, it was Romney. On the other hand, he has a vested interest in keeping as many hard line social conservatives in the race for as long as possible, dividing that slice of the electorate among two or five candidates, rather than forming a united opposition to his own candidacy. If, tomorrow, a Herman Cain or a Tim Pawlenty drops out, this hurts Romney more than anyone else.

So, who won? Hard to say. Pawlenty and Huntsman suffered a clear loss. Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann gave strong performances. Paul, Cain and Santorum did not do anything to especially help or hurt their candidacies in the long run. The press came out with a black eye, both because of Wallace’s exchange with Gingrich and Byron York got well-deserved boos when he asked Bachmann is she would be submissive to her husband if she were president. No matter what you think of the 2006 Bachmann quote York relied upon in posing the query, anytime a reporter becomes a part of the news story, they have done something wrong.

There was one other clear loser last night: sanity. From Bachmann’s reiteration of her belief that we should not have raised the debt ceiling (and the failure of the press panelists to follow-up by asking how she squared that stance with her support for the Ryan budget which also would have required Congress to raise the debt ceiling), to Ron Paul’s dismissing the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as none of our business, to Herman Cain’s meaningless exhortations about introducing sound business practices into government, as if there was no meaningful difference between a government and a private business, the one clear conclusion from last night’s debate is that the GOP has been pulled so far out of the mainstream, the nomination itself may be a poisoned chalice, no matter who grabs it.

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