The biggest non-loser of the night was clearly former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Why? Because Romney was not challenged once by his fellow Republican candidates on his spotty record as a conservative.
Romney might as well have been reading from a Teleprompter and his aides could have handed out preprinted copies of his polished and well-delivered answers before the questions were asked. His frontrunner status both nationally and in the critical early primary state was not only preserved but likely expanded by the reluctance of anyone to lay a glove on Mitt.
For a candidate trying to create an air of inevitability, the first “debate” Romney deemed worthy of his participation was a major victory.
The second biggest non-loser was Herman Cain. The ex-pizza company executive solidified the niche he carved for himself in the earlier South Carolina debate with his sharp, concise statements. While Cain will not be the nominee, the former Godfather’s Pizza chief will be in the race well after better funded “more electable” rivals have been dispatched.
Finally the third biggest non-loser, Minnesota US Representative Michele Bachmann. Why? Because CNN said so.
The commentators didn’t exactly fawn over her (such public expressions of fealty are reserved exclusively for the Messiah-in-Chief), though the talking heads on the channel went through great pains to praise her performance and tout her potential.
Bachmann is a prolific fundraiser and a TEA Party favorite. She’s also a native Iowan and isn’t too proud to pander and cajole via pep rally-style rhetoric to win people over. Bachmann made the most of her opportunity to more or less announce she will be making a formal announcement about running for president, which wasn’t smoothly delivered but put the former governor of Alaska on notice.
The conventional wisdom is that Sarah Palin and Bachmann would cancel each other out on the same ballot and it’s apparent the three-term congresswoman is willing to play political chicken with Palin.
Bachmann repeated much of her opening address at the 2011 CPAC, which sounded more like a presidential stump speech then for good reason, once again advancing her three-legged stool of conservatism analogy (fiscal, social and security conservatives).
To her credit, the longer the debate dragged on, the better Bachmann performed.
Now for the losers. And dare I say the biggest one was the candidate I would vote for if I had to choose from one of the seven.
Ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty missed his shot. CNN reporter and debate moderator John King did the job none of the other Republican candidates were willing to do: challenge Romney on his record.
When King asked Pawlenty about his previous use of the term Obamneycare as a critique of Romney’s health care record while he was governor of Massachusetts, the Minnesotan made like a golden gopher and burrowed away from the question.
Pawlenty’s punt showed both a lack of political instinct and guts. Does Pawlenty not grasp that his path to the nomination goes over Romney’s meticulously coiffed carcass?
With Texas governor Rick Perry poised to make a lack entry, Pawlenty’s window of opportunity to establish himself as a first-tier candidate is very narrow. Rather than challenging the front runner, by an inexplicable act of political pusillanimity reinforced it by avoiding a much needed discussion on why Romney should not be the party’s nominee.
Pawlenty’s one pop of the night was his vigorous comments on right-to-work but for the most part, the “other” Minnesotan lost an opportunity to make it a Pawlenty v. Romney fight and instead faded into the scenery.
Candidates who are polling in the low single digits can’t afford to remain as backdrop for long, even with good organizations set up in the early states. Especially if they lack a constituency. Sam’s Club Republicans can only do so much.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich showed he had a pulse albeit weak. Newt came off like a cantankerous professor (himself?), did not dress presidential and scowled most of the evening. Monday was not the turnaround moment his campaign bid needed. Someone needs to tell Gingrich that the presidential nomination will be determined by voters and not via standardized testing.
In another incredible act of charity, former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum refused to go after Romney when his multiple-positions on that most black-and-white issue, abortion. Rather than boldly trying to create a presence for his candidacy, Santorum struggled to fit in his bland canned rhetoric into the tight constraints allowed by the CNN host.
Finally there was Texas US Representative and political cult figure Ron Paul. The libertarian somehow managed to come off crankier than Newt. Wore, Paul wore a suit jacket that looked too big on his small frame, which made him look every bit the septuagenarian he is. Though the feisty candidate was finally pried off the issue of monetary policy as time went on, Paul clearly lacked vigor.
If Paul was selfless, he’d pass the baton off to ex-New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who has a similar constituency, and let a younger candidate with experience as a state executive borrow his impressive and energetic operation for an election cycle rather than monopolize it.
It’s not like Rand couldn’t get the keys back at the end of the day.
If the honor of “winner” had to be assigned to someone it would go to whoever passed on taking part in the debate and planned on jumping in the race later. What transpired at Saint Anselm didn’t inspire much confidence in the current crop of candidate selection.
Mike Bayham is a political consultant in south Louisiana. He posts his political blog at www.mikebayham.blogspot.com.
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