Like many of the hopeless political addicts around the nation, I turned on C-SPAN last night and sat through the first “unofficial” debate of the GOP primary season, the Voters First summit in New Hampshire Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post referred to it as political speed dating and that’s not a bad description. We didn’t have all the candidates, but 14 of them showed up – either in person or by remote video – and it was a lot to pack into the short time allowed.
Before getting to the format and the mechanics of the broadcast, there are a few notes about the people we got to see and how they handled it. The 800 pound gorilla (one Donald J. Trump) was not in the room, and unless I missed it he wasn’t even mentioned. The candidates weren’t obsessing over him the way we’re expecting to see it tomorrow night and in some regards I’m sure that they were grateful about that. (Who wants to talk about the guy who is still kicking your butt, more than doubling the numbers of his closest competitor as of this morning.) But that doesn’t mean that his effect wasn’t felt. It did seem like several of the contenders were looking for a way to capture some of that Donald magic during their brief stints on stage by making calls for big moves.
Carly Fiorina called for a government shutdown – if that’s what it takes – to defund Planned Parenthood. She also took a jab at both the Obama administration and the perceived lack of foreign policy expertise of her opponents by saying the first phone call she would make as president would be to “my good friend Bibi Netanyahu.” All in all, Carly was cool and collected, delivering a very solid performance. It might help her numbers in New Hampshire a bit.
I thought Rick Perry did well and was very funny and engaging. One of the surprise performances for me was Lindsey Graham. Even knowing full well the reputation he carries around here and remembering all of the disagreements I’ve had with him in the past, the guy used his time at the mic to great effect. He was forceful, yet funny, and his personality seemed bigger than the room.
Three Senators – Cruz, Paul and Rubio – had to “attend” via remote broadcast because they were staying at work to vote on the Planned Parenthood defunding measure. (Which failed, by the way.) I was particularly impressed by the appearance of Ted Cruz. I was commenting on Twitter as the event unfolded and I said at that time that Cruz managed to come off as the most presidential, competent (and absolutely not crazy) candidate in the field. Rubio did pretty well himself, but Rand Paul looked like somebody had attacked his hair with a leaf blower and seemed to stumble over several of his answers.
But as I said at the top, the event may have informed us more about the mechanics of vetting a field this size than the positions of the individual candidates, most of whom only had a total of five or six questions. (Related: see “14’s a crowd” at USA Today) The host filed the hopefuls on and off the stage twice each, and their time was extremely limited. This obviously removed the ability to do any deep dives on their policy plans and limited them to the most biting, clever talking points they could summon up. It was a nice introduction to New Hampshire voters, particularly for those who are lower in the polls and not getting as much TV time. But it also leaves me wondering what we’ll get out of the Fox debate. 90 minutes divided among 10 candidates comes out to 9 minutes each. And that’s not nine minutes of them speaking… that includes the time for the moderators to ask the questions. Is that really enough?
I give the New Hampshire event two thumbs up, regardless of those concerns. It was good for the voters and good for the candidates. I’m sure they all would have loved to have more time, but at least they’re getting a chance to strut their stuff on a national stage.