South Carolina debate wrap

As it turns out, Ed didn’t get to watch the debate last night, being busy amusing the #OccupyDenver rioters guests, so we missed out on his normal, pithy analysis. I did get the pleasure of watching it, however, and with a few notable sour notes, I’m certainly glad that I did. The short lede here is that even with the aforementioned glitches, this was quite possibly the best debate of the series thus far, with almost all of the candidates exceeding expectations and the moderators (mostly) providing excellent topics for discussion.

Before getting to the contenders, though, it should be noted that the big loser of the night still had to be CBS. It was a good series of topics and Major Garrett did a very competent job in pitching questions, but as Mark Thiessen pointed out, Scott Pelley was out of his league and did a terrible job, and truly embarrassed himself when he tried to challenge Newt Gingrich on matters of the law. But even Pelley’s failures paled in comparison to the Tiffany Network’s baffling decision to schedule a ninety minute debate and then only broadcast the first sixty minutes of it so they could cut away to a re-run of NCIS in many markets. (People out west apparently got to see the entire thing, but the east coast lost the feed and had to go to one of two online feeds to watch, both of which were immediately swamped and delivered a technically unusable webcast.)

Really smart, guys.

As far as the candidates themselves go, as I mentioned earlier, it was largely a terrific performance. I joined in with the usual list of suspects tweeting up a storm, and for once I found myself saying almost entirely positive things and showering compliments on the contenders rather than smashing my head into my keyboard and contracting alcohol poisoning from the Flubbed Answer Drinking Game. (As was the case in too many of the earlier ones.) Here’s a hopefully brief breakdown of how I rated them, in no particular order.

Mitt Romney: I almost get tired of saying this, but Mitt was once again just being Mitt. He’s very good in a standard debate format and he once again avoided any seriously embarrassing gaffes. He went a bit further at one point, giving what I felt was an excellent answer on dealing with China in terms of both trade and military considerations. Another solid, if not terribly exciting showing by Romney, where he might not have managed to suddenly win over the hearts and minds of the conservative base, but he certainly didn’t hurt his cause.

Rick Perry: This was the surprise showing of the night for me. Every time I’m ready to write the Perry campaign off as road kill on the political highway, he turns around and upsets the apple cart. He not only handled his “oops moment” flub from Wednesday with style, but incorporated it into this debate in a way which made him seem funny, grounded and in touch with the voters. He scored huge points early on when discussing foreign aid, proposing a “start with zero” theory, where America would judge each case individually before agreeing to pay the first penny to other countries. A few people took that as a questionable answer, focusing more on the budget, but the moderators brought the subject up in terms of foreign relations, so it was definitely applicable and expertly explained. He had plenty of other zingers, memorable quotes and solid answers. No doubt about it, this was Rick Perry’s best debate of the entire series and he may be on the road to recovery from earlier stumbles.

Herman Cain: To be kind, as we were discussing the debate after it finished, one friend asked me if Cain hadn’t performed better than I had expected. I had to admit that he did, with the caveat that the alternative would have been pretty much impossible. Cain came off better on some answers than I would have expected, but still had a number of questions where he seemed to get that deer in the headlights look and fall back on generalities. He also went to the, “I’ll ask my best advisers, generals, etc.” far too often, causing me to ask, “How many questions can Herman Cain answer by saying he’ll ask somebody else? Why not just ask Newt now, Herman?” All in all, Cain managed to surprise everyone by not entirely shooting himself in the foot, but it was far from a sparkling performance on foreign policy.

Newt Gingrich: For the most part, Newt put on a textbook display of how to dominate a crowded debate setting. Some may feel that he went a bit overboard in attacking the moderators, but that’s his style and the audience ate it up. As usual, Newt was pitch perfect on knowing policy and his answers showed that. Another exceptionally strong showing for Gingrich, and if his star is truly rising as the next “Anti-Romney” he certainly continued to help his cause last night.

Jon Huntsman: Given my own views on foreign policy, it’s obvious that I’d have a bit of a soft spot for Huntsman on this subject, but even given that predisposition, Huntsman raised the bar last night. He unfortunately will never be a sparkling speaker or one who gets the crowd up on their feet, but he was the most educated one on the stage, popping off the names of every player on the international stage like it was second nature to him. Obviously, some of his proposed policies won’t sit well with the conservative base, and I don’t expect everyone to suddenly flock to him after that performance, but he excels on foreign policy and it showed last night.

Michele Bachmann: She got almost no questions, (and we’ll have more later today on precisely why she had a valid complaint on that score) but the ones she did get she handled well. I don’t agree with her on some of these positions, but she was focused and very crisp in her answers. Her experience from her spot on the intelligence committee served her well. She didn’t deliver anything that’s going to launch her out of single digits as far as I could tell, but she handled herself very well last night.

Ron Paul: I have nothing to add to my previous reviews. Paul was Paul, steady, unchanging, on message, and not likely to break into frontrunner status any time soon.

Rick Santorum: Continued whining about not getting enough face time. Took some more extreme positions on foreign policy than the others and was the first to invoke Israel to get a round of applause. Seemed a bit out of his depth on answers about how to deal with the duplicity of Pakistan as they affect our relations with Afghanistan. Other than that, he was mostly a non-entity in this debate.

Conclusions: As I said, one of the best debates yet, even with all the technical problems and the efforts by CBS to shoot themselves in the foot. Lots of good performances and after a night to sleep on it, I still can’t say there is one clear winner. I will award this one as a tie between Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for the win. Romney stays pretty much where he was. I have no idea what, if anything this does to Cain, (since he’s apparently made of Teflon) but I don’t see how this helped him with anyone who wasn’t already firmly in his camp. The rest of the field didn’t do enough to break out of their current positions.