The race for the 2012 Republican nomination got underway last night as the big hitters of the GOP took part in a CCN-organised debate in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann provided the sparring, giving snapshot answers on questions ranging from the economy to abortion to Libya. As is the form in the US, actual debate proved rare, with the emphasis on providing pithy, coherent sentences and, more importantly, avoiding mistakes. Past campaigns have fallen foul of the faux pas. As such, each candidate took their place at the podium hostage to a potential knock-out blunder.
Fortunately, the broadcast ended without gaffe, slip-up or bungle. The winners and losers, however, were clear. Former Massachusetts governor and early frontrunner Mitt Romney consolidated his position with a presidential performance that had as much to do with his own assurance as it had with his opponents’ failure to land a glove. Going after the frontrunner offers the lesser-known candidates a chance to improve their profile. Instead, there was deference, most strikingly from Tim Pawlenty. The Minnesota Governor had attacked Romney on the Sunday talk shows over his “socialised” healthcare system in Massachusetts, drawing a parallel between that and the much-despised Obamacare. The chair offered Pawlenty the chance to confront Romney to his face. Romney glared, Pawlenty demurred. Similarly, Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life candidate, failed to take the Mormon candidate to task over his past dalliance with the pro-choice agenda. The former Pennsylvania senator remained a peripheral figure throughout much of the evening.
The unexpected beneficiary of the debate was Newt Gingrich. The portly former speaker looked like Elvis circa ‘77 and, on the back of a mass resignation by his campaign staff this weekend it appeared the thrice-married family values candidate was simply there to make up the numbers. On the contrary, he provided a performance of bluster and charisma, as well as offering a surprisingly nuanced argument when it came to immigration.
The one unsavoury moment for Gingritch came courtesy of Herman Cain. When asked to defend his recent assertion that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim to work in his administration, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO delivered a slice of verbal confusion that concluded with potential Muslim applicants being subjected to an interview to prove their allegiance to old Glory. Having watched Herman descend slowly into a hole, Gingritch duly followed with a rant that seemingly justified loyalty tests for US citizens. A whiff of Joe McCarthy, or at least that of his drink-sodden corpse, wafted through the auditorium. It was not a conversation that reached out to the moderate arm of the party, let alone any wavering Democrats. Cain, who in a previous debate hosted by Fox News had emerged the unlikely victor, looked anything but presidential. When asked for political analysis on Libya, he turned to his family for inspiration. “To paraphrase my grandmother… it’s a mess.” Not exactly Robert Fisk. The Georgia businessman did look assured on one question – whether he preferred “deep crust or thin?”
Ron Paul trotted out his usual isolationist rhetoric and even parodied himself with a few quips about The Federal Reserve, his default topic. He’s a game old goose, the congressman who enjoys huge popular support throughout the college campuses. His idealism, particularly in regards to the constitution, was in contrast with the more prosaic offerings from the other candidates. He is always enjoyable to watch and one of the most interesting players on the American political stage, but as always his brand of Libertarianism provided nothing more than a sideshow, and the Texas congressman will no doubt remain a fringe figure within US conservatism.
Another character on the periphery, Michele Bachmann, does appear to have come out of the debate with increased standing, offering up several forceful points that would have no doubt appealed to the grassroots and her Tea Party faithful. She’s got a chequered past, pronouncing views on evolution 100-years out of date, as well as helping to fan the “death panel” propaganda during the Obamacare debate. Her thoughts on homosexuality are a matter of record. However, there’s no denying that she has a large and growing fan-base, while the event offered her the chance to present a coherent, albeit hard-right message, while standing alongside some of the big players within the Republican establishment. Comparisons with Sarah Palin are inevitable, but the gulf between the two is clear. Bachmann isn’t Palin-light – they share many views – but the Minnesota congresswoman is far better prepared and far more articulate, delivering a consistent narrative, the type that Palin found it so hard to enunciate during the 2008 campaign. Whereas Palin took refuge in naked provincialism and borderline racism, Bachmann managed to deliver her brand of ultra-conservatism without looking completely insane. There seems little point in the former Governor of Alaska throwing her black Cole Haan boots into the ring for 2012 while Bachmann’s in the running, though as one CNN pundit astutely pointed out, “Palin may yet play kingmaker”.
Each candidate managed to throw a few punches Obama’s way particularly with regards to the economy and rising unemployment. However, if the President was watching the debate, he would have done so sitting comfortably on Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the frosty economic climate currently chilling the US, his lease on the White House looks secure for some years yet. The problem for the GOP remains winning Tea Party support alongside the more moderate Republicans. Could a Romney/Bachmann ticket unite the party’s increasingly disparate ranks? It seems like an unlikely marriage, but with US politics, just about anything is possible.