13 September 2011

Debating the GOP Debates

CNN/Tea Party Debate   Source: Edmund D. Fountain/St. Petersburg Times

After five debates among the Republican Presidential candidates, viewers have a somewhat better feel for the candidates and the biases by the broadcasters.

While the debate organizers may point to quantitative metrics as to which candidates qualify for participation, it is likely that the broadcasters can tip the scale to make for good television.  There will be few arguments that ex Governor Gary Johnson (R-NM) presence was a one and done, since he is going nowhere in the polls, has scant funding or organization and he did little to contribute to the debate aside from spouting a libertarian harrange for the War on Drugs.

Most of the debates have eight or nine candidates on stage.  It is tempting to narrow the field to a few of the top tier candidates.  But such a handpicked crop of candidates would preclude breakaway moments for candidates down in the polls and might actually stifle candidates from mixing it up.  Herman Cain was impressive in the first debate in the Palmetto State and the so called “non-politician” candidate continues to score some memorable quips about Washington not working.  While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) may have no chance of winning the GOP nomination, he cuts quite a profile during debates by railing against the Media’s compulsion to start fights between the GOP team of rivals.  And Gingrich uses his remaining time in debates to target what he perceives is the real problem–Obama being in the White House.  Now it may be strategic or merely serendipitous that Gingrich plugs his own books and web sites and burnishes his mantle for being the smartest future Republican commentator on television.

Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX 14th) participation in the debates is questionable but no mystery.  After all, Dr. Paul quit the GOP under President Reagan.  Moreover, after he lost the 2008 GOP primaries, Paul gave good lip service to several third party Presidential candidates rather than the GOP nominee Senator John McCain.  While the 75 year old Congressman has little to no chance of winning the GOP nomination, he has fanatical Paulestians who do good internet fundraisers for him and act as enthusiastic useful idiots during public appearances. Besides, Rep. Paul’s unabashed articulation of Libertarian policy and American isolationism is a challenge if not a thorn to the side for mainstream Republican candidates.

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) has not gained much traction in the race and was looking like a has been during earlier debates.  But Santorum’s Tea Party debate appearance was spirited, managed to articulate his policy and Santorum got some zingers in on Rep. Paul and Governor Rick Perry (R-TX)

It is dubious as to why ex-Governor Jon Huntman (R-UT) continues to cruise into GOP debate nominations.  Huntsman is doing dismally in the polls.  He had banked on basing his campaign headquarters in Orlando, Florida but then retreated after doing poorly in the Florida straw polls.  Since Huntsman is heir to a fortune, he has the financial resources to bankroll his own campaign.  As Obama’s ex-Ambassador to China, Huntsman provides an interesting moderate contrast to the rest of the field.  Now that Huntman has dropped his Mr. Nice Guy guise, his mixing it up makes for an intellectual food fight, which is good television but not necessarily enlightening. Besides, there are suspicions that Huntsman might try a bite at an independent run for the presidency if he can not snag the GOP nod.

While Huntsman continues to share the stage with GOP rivals, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI 11th) can not seem to snag a ticket to the big debate dance.  This may be due to poor name recognition in national polls without regard to the state organization in Iowa or New Hampshire.  It is a shame as McCotter is a thoughtful, articulate and personable conservative who just released a social security plan.  But when one quixotically tills at White House windmills, sometimes one is left alone in the field.

Despite her meteoric rise during the Granite State debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN 6th) has been somewhat subdued in later debates.  This may have been due to ex campaign manager Ed Rollins’ strategerie (sic), or the fact that television prefers a tete-a-tete between two frontrunners.  Bachmann scored some points against Gov. Perry during the Tea Party debate when the subject of forced girls’ HPV vaccination was revisited.  Bachmann sounds strong about repealing Obamacare, but she seems unable to break away.

With former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) dropped out of the race, debates have developed into parrying between Gov. Rick Perry and the early frontrunner former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA). Both candidates have some vulnerabilities along with their great strengths.  Romney championed universal healthcare coverage in the Bay State which some suggest was the model for Obamacare, which Romney denies but does not apologize for his initiative.  Perry sounded Fed Up! about the Social Security so called Ponzi scheme, which he roundly defended during the Politico debate, but then tried to walk back during the latest Tea Party debate in the face of criticism amongst seniors in Florida.  Perry also has needed to do lost of explaining about his HPV Executive Order.

During the recent Tea Party debate, Perry seemed to channel the enthusiasm of the room full of Tea Party activists, while Romney sought to look and sound Presidential to wider audiences. Other candidates were able to take potshots at current frontrunner Perry and he did not always decisively answer.  In fact, Perry’s quip that he was insulted that he could be bought by pharmaceutical company Merck for a $5,000 contribution opened the door for a bedrock emotion Bachmann retort and Perry’s cynical jest might continue to haunt him.

CNN did a better job during this debate than when John King grunted his way through the New Hampshire debate. Wolfe Blitzer asked challenging questions which sparked spirited exchanges without sounding like he was cribbing DNC talking points as Brian Williams did during the (MS)NBC/Politico debate at the Reagan Library last week.  Blitzer was good about spreading the love and letting second tier candidates participate while fostering feisty extended exchanges between candidates.

While it was admirable for CNN to try to take questions from Tea Party gatherings around the country, this was a gimmick and did not always technically flow well.  But this was a better gimmick than NBC’s insulting innovation of bringing out a Telemundo anchor to put all GOP candidates on Immigration.  CNN did not stoop to play “This or That” again with candidates.  But CNN bookended its triteness by starting the broadcast with video vignettes of all the candidates that seemed better suited for a Monday Night Football opening rather than a Presidential debate.  And Blitzer’s last question of what (furniture) a candidate would bring to the White House allowed for open ended responses but was trivial.

Having the vocal Tea Party audience was mostly a positive thing.  One could certainly sense who was scoring support among the Tea Party base and what rhetorical tactics played well.  More importantly, it gave viewers a sense of what parries did not carry and when certain candidates were off the Republican reservation (namely Ron Paul’s isolationist foreign policy).  The raucousness of the crowd could cut into candidates' times.  Moreover, it does set the table for organized vocal demonstrations, likely from Paulistinians.  But it was pleasant to hear figuratively hear crickets chirping at some of Huntman’s attacks.

As for the Tea Party debate, Romney continues to play cautiously in order to sound Presidential and succeeded.  But Romney’s staunch support of Romneycare still does not play well to the base.  Perry was ganged up upon.  But Perry’s shoot from the hip style lost some of his swagger by backtracking on Social Security and HPV, which may check his frontrunning standing.  Bachmann’s policies make her the darling of the Tea Party.  But Bachmann did not dominate the debate or score sufficient points to upgrade her current showing.  Gingrich does well in debates, but overall his candidacy stills suffers from the perception of being a Newt-run Bomb. Santorum made an impression at the Tea Party debate but it was not a breakaway moment. The big loser at the Tea Party Debate was the National Anthem, but unlike Cindi Lauper at the U.S. Open or Christina Aguilera at the Superbowl, at least she remembered the lyrics.

There will be a couple of more debates this month where political junkies can learn more about the prospective challengers to President Barack Obama.  Stay tuned.

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