After a rather nice break from the debate circuit over the holidays, they were back with a vengeance this weekend, with two of them barely 12 hours apart. Last night, Ed weighed in with his own review of the Saturday evening event on ABC, and it was followed up by an NBC/Facebook showdown this morning. While it seems a rather short fuse for anyone to catch up to Romney’s lead in the polls in New Hampshire, the candidates did their best to make their case before the voters.
For the Saturday night event, there are already a few good reviews out there for you to take a look at. Michael Barone felt that Mitt Romney pretty much locked up the nomination in one fell swoop. I think that may be a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly seemed like old patterns emerged quickly and the rest of the field let Mitt off the hook. Matt Lewis explains it as being, The Tragedy of the Conservatives.
In this case, the conservative alternatives to Romney aren’t being selfish by overusing a shared resource — they are, instead, selfishly preserving their reputations.
By playing nice, each candidate is acting in his own rational self interest — but it just so happens to be an existential threat to the group, collectively.
Individually, this makes perfect sense. Some of the candidates, by now, know they cannot win. As such, they have little incentive to attack Romney. (Perhaps he will give them a position in his administration if they help him? Maybe he would counter-attack them and make them look bad if they criticize him? Or maybe they just want to be thought of as “nice”?)
Meanwhile, the candidates who think they can win — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — probably believe their best shot at the nomination is to finish second in New Hampshire. And while going “negative” in a debate may hurt Romney, it would also tarnish their reputation, as well.
Doug Mataconis is equally perplexed as to how Romney keeps seeming to waltz away without taking so much as a scratch.
If there’s been one recurring theme from the 14 debates that the Republican candidates for President have had since last May, it’s been the extent to which the putative frontrunner, the guy that all the other candidates supposedly hate and who several have said has more in common with Barack Obama than your average Republican has walked away without taking any real heat from his opponents. It happened when Tim Pawlenty backed away from his “ObamneyCare” comments. It happened when Rick Perry failed to effectively distinguish himself from Romney. It happened after Perry faded when candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were making their climb in the polls. Last night at St. Anslem College in Manchester, New Hampshire, it happened again
I won’t add much more to that for the Saturday night event except to say that Mitt does much better by dint of his demeanor than he does from any dramatic, visionary policy statements or conservative fighting words. On the few occasions where he was criticized by the other candidates, his smile never faded and he remained calm and focused. This left some of the rest of the field looking rather desperate to get into the mix, which only plays to Mitt’s benefit.
The Sunday morning event, hosted by NBC and Facebook, started off as nothing short of a disaster. The lead moderator, David Gregory, spent the opening segment doing nothing but firing off political talking points and trying to get the candidates to snipe at each other. Those of us following on Twitter noted that it was literally fifteen minutes into the debate before the first question on policy was asked, and even then it was only after Ron Paul chided Gregory over the unsubstantial nature of the topics.
There were a few shots taken at Mitt, but as usual he simply kept smiling, stayed even in tone, and soon the rest of the field were back to taking shots at each other. When the questions finally did swing around to policy, though, there were a number of memorable moments. Mitt, Rick Perry, Santorum and Newt all got in some good points on reforming entitlement programs and American energy policy. While the moderation by NBC was, in my opinion, pretty much a FAIL across the board, the candidates eventually managed to hold a good policy discussion amongst themselves.
Yet again, Mitt seems to have come off as “winning” by virtue of not being bloodied to any great degree. Rick Perry turned in a strong performance in both appearances, but was once again not given enough camera time to really make a huge impact, so I don’t know how much this helps him heading into South Carolina. Newt Gingrich, as usual, was a strong debater who got in some hard hitting quips, but unlike his previous performances, he seemed a bit back on his heels at times. Not terrible, but not his best work. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman were pretty much their usual selves, but neither did anything which struck me as game changing. Santorum drew a lot of heat, which is appropriate given his new top tier status, and handled most of the pressure pretty well. The only problem I had with his performance was the feeling that he always seems to come off as being somewhat angry, or at least surly. He demonstrates a very serious demeanor, but I don’t know if that grimacing, hostile tone will play well with the voters.
Related: Dr. James Joyner asks, Is Jon Huntsman the future of the GOP? (My answer was, “he’d need to be the future because he’s clearly not the present.)
In any event, that was the last chance these candidates had to shine before the nation’s first primary on Tuesday. There will be another debate in South Carolina on Monday, January 16th which will be held on Fox. Remember… this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we’ve only just made it out of the starting gate.