21 August 2011

Iowa Debate and Straw Poll

Ah, the smell of politics is seriously in the air. With the debate and Ames straw poll in Iowa both going down last week, we saw some sparks start to fly.

The debate was excellent, far better than the joke South Carolina debate (that included few serious candidates) or the CNN debate in New Hampshire (that swung wildly between gimmicky softballs and crotchballs). A lot of credit has to go to the moderators from Fox News and the Washington Examiner: they asked some serious and deeply-thought questions, they followed up intelligently but without badgering, and they maintained a great tenor throughout. They were even, astonishingly, able to give fair time to all the candidates. Performances varied.

Tim Pawlenty was one to watch. His performance in debates to date had been terrible. Just like last time, he seemed ill at ease, but this time he was determined to eliminate the impression that he was gutless by going after Michele Bachmann hard. He was still pretty afraid to hit Mitt Romney, probably because he rightly knows that Romney has a serious future and Bachmann doesn't. But he spared nothing in his attacks on Bachmann, pointing out her complete lack of legislative accomplishment and keeping at it. He must have known he needed a spectacular showing here if he wanted to stay in the race, and so he deployed some brilliant thrusts of rhetoric that were carefully-crafted but well-delivered ("You fought Obamacare but we got Obamacare. If this is your idea of helping, please stop, because you're killing us.") He must have been practicing for hours.

Michele Bachmann took the attacks without a flinch: she had clearly been anticipating them, and had a practiced counter-attack ready to go ("He supported cap-and-trade, and he sounds more like Obama to me.") Over the past few months, she has become a relentless talking-point machine, and is starting to shed the mantle of crazy firebomber that she once had. She's the farthest right of any of the candidates, so much so that she's actually had to swing a little towards moderation.

Mitt Romney just stood there, smiled, and looked handsome. He wanted to seem presidential, to cultivate the air of inevitability that's already hanging around him. And since none of the other candidates dare go after him (there's the future possibility of running mate to think about!) his job was easy. His questions were ones he had anticipated and had answers prepared, such as criticism about his time at Bain Capital. He made no mistakes, didn't take any bait, and was probably the top winner of the thing.

Newt Gingrich was at the top of his game, and showed that he was probably the smartest person on the stage. He has been talking and thinking about ideas for things for decades, and so on almost any topic he has a great if obscure answer crammed with things that sound true. He took each question he was given, considered it carefully in that instant, and then either returned a coherent and natural-sounding answer or slickly slid past it to give the answer he wanted. His reference to "Lean Six Sigma" management techniques was a new idea to the GOP field for the most part, but in the days since the debate it's now become a new topic and everyone else is lining up behind him.

Rick Santorum was a flaccid joke.

John Huntsman continued to run for election in 2016, fooling no one.

Ron Paul was consistent and outspoken, and showed why he has been the standard-bearer for libertarians for years. For all Bachmann's crap about being the "tip of the spear," it's Paul who had the only unique ideas on the stage. Unfortunately, while he sways the debate a little, the establishment is united against him. Not even his star performance at the debates will change that. It has to be said that he sounded more like a voice of reason and less like a crazy old man, this time around.

Herman Cain demonstrated how out of his depth he is - he followed everyone else's lead, parroted back things in an obvious manner, and generally just seemed like a bad copy of the other people on the stage.

After the excitement of the debate, the poll a few days later was boring. Bachmann bought the most votes and won, and Ron Paul came in a close second thanks to his fantastic organization - only to be ignored completely, as Jon Stewart would later point out. The only interesting things were twofold:

  • Pawlenty had to drop out after coming in third, having effectively run out of money. His "reasonable guy in the room" schtick just wasn't working out, since Romney already seems pretty reasonable to the GOP electorate. There was no money for it.
  • Rick Perry got in the race. He's the Governor of Texas and he stands little chance of winning.

More and more, it just seems like Romney is steadily ironing out his ascendancy. It's still his to lose, by a wide margin.

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