The blogosphere is abuzz this morning with commentary and analysis from last night’s Republican candidate debate in New Hampshire, the official kick-off to the campaign season. As I watched the candidates tackle questions posed by CNN’s John King, I couldn’t help but feel a pervading sense of disappointment. I appreciated the candidates’ Reagan-style push to unite the Republican party at the outset by standing together against President Obama and his policies. No doubt the coming months will show “no more nice guys and gal” attitudes, as these presidential hopefuls take to the campaign trail.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney maintained his cool, calm, and collected front-runner status last night. He stuck to the economy and blamed Obama, emphasizing the struggles that Americans face as a result of the staggering unemployment figures. Romney adeptly used the debate platform to promote the video that his campaign released yesterday. The video takes Obama’s rhetoric of “bumps on the road to recovery” and personifies these “bumps”, showing Americans to be more than statistics. While other candidates dwelled on social issues, Team Romney recognizes that the economy is a tangible selling point to voters. The infuriating fact about Romney’s stellar performance is that I absolutely don’t support him. His flawed, expensive healthcare plan in Massachusetts was the model for the (unconstitutional) national plan and he is an extremely flaky candidate (a tendency that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum highlighted last night in regard to Romney’s pro-choice and pro-life stances at different times).
Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, was a big disappointment. He failed to continue his attacks on “Obamneycare” (the phrase coined by Pawlenty when he appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, cementing the Massachusetts healthcare law with the president’s). Not only did T-Paw refuse to engage Romney in person, the former Minnesota governor’s remarks seemed unbelievably rehearsed and a “Look at all that I have accomplished” presentation. I understand that he is still trying to introduce himself to the American public, but I had the impression that first-timers will be put off by this vanilla candidate.
Fresh from filing the paperwork to officially declare her candidacy, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann broke onto the campaign trail with a bang. Karl Rove appeared on Fox News this morning praising Bachmann’s rallying cry of “President Obama is a one term president” as the best line of the evening. While she also faces the difficulties of name-recognition, based on her performance, viewers of last night’s debate would consider Bachmann a front-runner in the field. She is also attractive to the far right section of the GOP and is a vocal supporter of the Tea Party movement, in contrast to some of the more moderate personalities. Oh right, and she’s a woman amidst a group of men.
The other four candidates gave average to poor showings. Herman Cain, the Georgian businessman who impressed many by winning the last debate against Pawlenty, seemed tongue-tied and made downright objectionable comments. From his wariness of muslims in America to his confusion over laws and policies applying to gays in the military, it was hard for viewers to identify with Cain, let alone pin him down on his views. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, who has been absent from elected office for 16 years, played the role of “professor in the ivory tower”. Clearly an intellectual, Newt had difficulty giving brief, cogent answers to questions. He did make an excellent point about how debate often centers around extreme “this or that” approaches to policy. On the immigration question, either amnesty for all illegal immigrants or the deportation of all. On the eminent domain issue, either the government seizure of private land in New Hampshire or the continuing dependence on foreign oil. Despite his wisdom regarding the implausibility of these ridiculous choices, he failed to make a strong impression. Plus, a person who has spent the past decade making Reagan documentaries and who has the kind of personal baggage that Newt does will never get elected. Rick Santorum played the far-right-on-social-issues card and was the only candidate to even attempt to engage Romney, but otherwise was a flop. And Ron Paul was the same “end the Fed”, “America first” crazy uncle that we give ten minutes of attention at the dinner table at Thanksgiving, then forget about for the rest of the year.
All in all, last night was not particularly eye-opening, and more than a little depressing. We’ll see how the field changes if and when other candidates like John Huntsman, Sarah Palin, John Bolton, and Rudy Giuliani kick off their campaigns. The evening’s take-away: the audience’s biggest applause came from Romney’s comment, “The Bruins are up 4-0″.