A few observations about last night’s GOP debate in Orlando:
i) The format was bad because in general each candidate was asked a different question. As such, the viewer didn’t get to compare and contrast how different candidates answered the same question. It also afforded less opportunity for the candidates to go after each other on the same question.
ii) There are several different audiences for this type of debate, and a savvy candidate has to decide which audience to play to. There’s (a) the live, studio audience; (b) the invisible TV audience; (c) the pundits; (d) Republicans, and (d) primary voters in the state that’s hosting the debate.
What’s a good answer for one audience may be a bad answer for another audience. Take the immigration issue. The hardline answers of Romney, Bachmann, and Santorum play well to Republicans generally. However, they may play badly to the Latino voting block in Florida, where the debate took palce. Conversely, Perry’s answer plays badly to Republicans generally, but it may play well to the Latino voting block in Florida. Since Florida is a key state, both in the primaries and the general election, it’s not clear who won that exchange.
iii) I thought Perry did better in this debate. He learns from his mistakes. However, he seemed to lose steam as the debate wore on. And he didn’t stand out.
He gave a better answer than Santorum on Pakistan. It does make geostrategic sense for us to back India as a check on Pakistan.
By contrast, it makes less sense to cultivate Musharaff. He’s out of power. And he reacted badly to the assassination of bin Laden.
For the most part, Perry gave a better formulated answer on immigration. The problem is not so much with his answer, but with his position. He’s dealt himself a hand a losing hand with most conservatives. However well he polishes the answer, the position itself is still unpopular. And he fails to distinguish between a pragmatic policy and a principled policy.
Perry gave a well-formulated answer on the vaccine controversy. That played well to the studio audience. He won the moment. However, that may backfire since his answer was apparently deceptive (in terms of the timeline).
He also gave a more politic answer on Social Security, but was his answer credible given past statements? Moreover, he has yet to explain how he plans to fix Social Security.
For his part, Santorum drew a valid distinction between access to college and tuition breaks. However, Santorum’s statement amounted to amnesty for illegals. He seems to be saying, once you’re here, however you get here, you’re welcome to stay. We just won’t subsidize you.
On the “gays-in-the-military question,” Santorum tried his best to cobble together an answer, but it didn’t quite add up.
There’s no point talking about a general ban on sex in the military. Clearly, many twenty-something soldiers are going to be sexually active, and a coed military invites sexual activity within the ranks.
I’m not sure how many people caught that. It’s potentially damaging.
For her part, Bachmann was charming, articulate, and single-minded. However, she needed a breakout moment, and she never got the opportunity. So I think she’ll fall further in arrears.
Romney generally gave all the right answers. He only faltered at one point when Perry brought differences between the hardback and paperback editions of his book.
Romeny’s problem is credibility. He’s a throwback to John Connally. Like Connally, Romney is smooth and telegenic, but shifty. Many GOP voters distrust him.
I’m not clear on Santorum’s strategy. He seems to think Perry is the man to beat. But Romney is the other frontrunner.
Santorum gave a predictably hawkish answer on Iraq and Afghanistan. But he doesn’t seem to see the need to reevaluate our strategy. The nation-building paradigm is a boondoggle.
Both Romney and Perry often sound as if they’re delivering scripted lines, only Romney is better at memorizing the script.
By contrast, Gingrich comes across as someone who knows that he’s talking about, not someone who’s remembering what to say. Someone who can think through an issue.
But his strength is his weakness. He’s a man of ideas. He loves ideas for the sake of ideas. The question is whether he has the discipline to settle on a few key ideas, turn those into detailed policies, then aggressively lobby for his policies. Does he follow through with his ideas, or does he just leave a trail of unfinished initiatives and abortive programmatic ideas. Does he find the nuts-and-bolts of actual governance boring?
There is also a question about his sincerity. It looks like he’s been prepositioning himself as a social conservative by converting to the Roman Catholicism and making strategic confessions about his private life to defuse that issue. Making tactical advance moves, then allowing some time to pass, so that when this election cycle came around he could pose as a social conservative. Seems too calculated to me.
Cain gave a winsome performance tonight, but thus far there’s no evidence that he’s competitive. Might make great cabinet secretary.