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Winners and Losers in GOP NH Debate

Posted by Stephen on June 14, 2011

It was a pleasant night for all the contenders in the GOP debate that took place last night in New Hampshire; which is to say, it’s early.

None of the contenders wanted to take shots at their rivals, and for many the night was their official introduction to the rest of the country. Let’s face it, unless you’re a political junkie you probably didn’t know who Herman Cain was, barely heard of Michele Bachman, and can’t remember where you heard of Rick Santorum.

All of the contenders used last night to get their feet wet; to get the feel of the debate setting and to see where their comfort zone was. A night like last night, where there were a lot of softballs to hit, was a chance to put together a list of individual strong points and points they will need to polish moving forward.

All in all, the candidates held up quite well. There were no real homeruns, but no real gaffes either. As Tiger Woods used to say, “you can’t win a championship in the first round…you just want to be sure not to lose it.” No one won the nomination last night, but no one has to walk away thinking they need to pack it in either.

Nonetheless, there were some winners and losers and there were some people missed as well.

Winners

Mitt Romney is the current front runner and there is no reason to think he is anything less after last night. He handled himself quite well, but no one did anything to make him squirm. He had to anticipate his rival’s coming after him, but it never happened. On the one hand, it allowed Romney to answer questions thoughtfully and to focus his attacks on the Democrat in the office he is seeking. Romney did a nice job focusing his comments on obama and distinguishing himself on key issues, especially health care. On the other hand, he was not tested. It was an easy night for the former Governor and you would think he would like to be pushed a little more. The one thing he needs is to be tested, pushed, and even attacked during the nomination process before taking on the obama campaign machine.

Romney’s greatest policy challenge is going to be health care and I believe he is doing a much better job this go around then he did in 2008.

On the issue of health care, Beth Reinhard of the National Journal, wrote, “Romney approached one of his biggest potential liabilities in the GOP primary with confidence, “I can’t wait to debate him and say, Mr. President, if, in fact, you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call and ask what worked and what didn’t?” he asked. “And I would have told you, Mr. President, that what you’re doing will not work.”

If Romney can stick to the ‘state’s rights’ message, he will win on this issue over time. He also was adamant about his desire, not to change the health care bill, but to repeal it all together stating that it was simply too expensive to justify.

Michele Bachman was another big winner last night. During her introduction she let people know that she was a mother of 5 and the adoptive mother of 23 children…that’s right, 23 children. She was the most enthusiastic candidate on stage and she put to rest any concerns regarding her qualifications. She had a solid grasp of issues and showed that she is a serious candidate.

She showed why she is a Tea Party darling and didn’t blink as she articulated a staunch pro life position, a solid grasp on the economy and attacked obama for entering Libya with no plan and without congressional support.

Ron Paul continues to be the most interesting candidate in the race. In a Human Events poll taken after the debate, Paul finished second to Bachman. 26% of people polled said he won the debate. Unfortunately, 22.5% said he should throw in the towel, which was second to Newt Gingrich’s 31.8%.

Paul must find a way to explain his economic belief system and how he can turn the economy around. The fact is he speaks over the people’s head and does not do a good enough job describing, in layman’s terms, what steps have to be taken to change course. He has a plan and a philosophy and if there is anyone in the race who will stay the course it is Paul. However, he does a poor job of articulating it. He speaks to face, gets to emotional, delivers fragmented sentences and leaves people asking, “so what did he just say?”

He faces similar challenges on foreign policy issues. He wins when he talks about a foreign policy that focuses on making America stronger. He attacked obama for entering Libya, and for the hundreds of billions of dollars we are spending overseas all the while reminding people he served in the military himself.

Yet, he loses many Americans when he refuses to acknowledge that terrorism is a real threat and when he talks about bringing troops home without consulting combat generals and without formulating a responsible plan to do so.

Like Romney, though, he is much more prepared today then he was in 2008. He is more confident and seems to be more prepared to address questions outside of the topic of economics then he was during his 08 campaign.

Losers

It may be early in the nomination process, but Newt Gingrich needed to hit a homerun last night and he could muster little more than a series of base hits. He never seemed to get his legs under him and he couldn’t develop any momentum. He seemed out gunned by seasoned competitors like Romney, and couldn’t equal the enthusiasm and energy of Bachman and even Herman Cain, and couldn’t articulate a plan the way Tim Pawlenty did.

He looked like a candidate without much structure, without a plan, without a cohesive message and without much energy. At times he looked old, and worn down, and maybe he is. It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the former Speaker of the House.

Hopefully, for Herman Cain’s aspirations, he learned a lot about this debate stuff. He is not a politician and it showed last night. While that can be a good thing, last night it was a negative. He didn’t seem comfortable, used to much fluff and not enough meat while answering key questions on the economy, which should be his strongest issue.

Cain was upstaged on the economy by Paul, who happened to be standing right next to him. Their positioning on stage allowed for a sort of photo comparison between the two. I believe it added to a measure of discomfort for Cain and, like Gingrich, he never really seemed to gain any momentum.

Rich Santorum also needed to hit a homerun last night and didn’t. He and Gingrich will fight to see which will bow out of this race first.

The Middlemen

Tim Pawlenty didn’t hurt himself last night but he didn’t really help himself either. On the one hand he has the most detailed economic plan of any of the candidates in the race, and on the other he can’t seem to shake this ‘nice guy’ tag that has become a negative for his campaign.

I, for one, can’t understand why people believe he is to nice to be president, but I am clearly in the minority. However, he didn’t help that image when he had a chance to distinguish himself, and his plans for health care, and didn’t take it. Pawlenty refused to level a critical argument against Romney’s health care plan with Romney a few feet away. It was the civil thing to do; the nice thing to do, and he seems to be paying a price for it.

Pawlenty was a solid Governor and his executive experience shows next to challengers like Santorum, Gingrich, Cain and even Paul and Bachman. Yet, so far he hasn’t gotten out of the doldrums of early polling numbers.

His greatest challenge is that he’s trying to overcome a phantom nemesis. It’s one thing to have to defeat an opponent you must face. It’s an entirely different animal when you are battling an image you created simply by being yourself by smiling a lot and have a soft spoken delivery.

The Left Out’s

Where are Rick Perry and Sarah Palin? There’s a buzz surrounding both of these potential candidates but no sightings. I know Perry is putting a team together and Palin is on a bus tour but that’s not the same thing is it?

I believe that if and when either, or both, of these candidates enter the race it will spell the end of the Santorum and Gingrich campaign’s, and send warning flags up over the Cain campaign.

At the end of the night the winners were voters looking for solid contenders. The GOP field is much more impressive then the media and skeptics have been giving them credit for. This was the first step in a lengthy journey to the nomination. It will only get more interesting if Perry and Palin enter, but until then, there’s plenty to be excited about as the GOP field moves forward.

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