It was an incredible opportunity to go to the Iowa State University campus (one of the most beautiful in the Midwest, I might add) for the Fox News/Iowa GOP/Washington Examiner Presidential debate. Being there in person for such an event gives one a completely different perspective than one gets watching on television from home.
Bret Baier, Fox news Commentator came on stage about 7:50PM and after the obligatory references to “Field of Dreams” (Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa) and pork chops on a stick, he explained the rules and asked that the audience applaud only when the candidates came on stage, after the commercial breaks and he said that he would give ample time to cheer at the end. Most of that request fell on deaf ears.
Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn then addressed the crowd. Note to Matt: next time you have a debate, make sure that the notices for not taking cameras into the venue are in place and are displayed in a manner that anyone would be able to know that no cameras would be allowed. And, since every cell phone sold in the US now has a camera on it, what was that rule about anyway? Lots of ticked off people walking back to put cameras in their cars upon learning this at the ‘security’ check point.
It was then time for the main event as the candidates took the stage and began the two-hour televised event timed just prior to the Ames Straw Poll.
While admittedly, I am a supporter of Sen. Rick Santorum, it was obvious to even the most biased observer that his performance last night was outstanding. Given the fact that in the first 45 minutes, he was asked only one question, when he was asked to respond or rebut, the answer was thoughtful, concise and to the point. I have been at many of Sen. Santorum’s events and admittedly he, like the rest of the candidates has a stump speech. However, I did not hear much of that speech last night and he demonstrated what I have come to know about this man, he is a committed, consistent conservative and was second only to Newt Gingrich last night in his ability to express his message in an articulate manner. I would give Sen. Santorum five stars for his performance last night based upon his exchange with Cong. Ron Paul, which was the only real ‘debate’ of the evening.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich was the winner of the sound bite contest. As Dr. Frank Luntz stated on the Hannity post-debate show last night, Mr. Gingrich ‘won the war’. His exchange with Chris Wallace, while red meat for the anti-mainstream media audience both in the auditorium and watching at home in my sense was more showmanship than anything else. I am convinced more than ever that Newt Gingrich is in this race for the long haul. He will still be left standing not only after the Straw Poll, but the Iowa caucuses and the leadoff primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. I give him four stars for his debate last night.
I thought that Herman Cain was also given less attention by the panel than other candidates. While I did not tally the number of questions or the amount of camera face time, I would say that Mr. Cain was summarily dismissed by the panel as well. This incredibly articulate man with a common sense manner has appealed to so many Americans. His missteps have been amplified in the press to his disadvantage, and while he tried to correct those last night, they were lost in the minutiae of some of the other nonsense that went on. I also give Mr. Cain four stars for his performance last night.
Mitt Romney, who has decided that he would not be investing in Iowa like he did four years ago, gave a polished and well-rehearsed performance. But of course, he has not been on the campaign trail for the past month, and had ample time to memorize his seven-point plan for the economy and have his consultants ‘test’ certain buzz words for maximum response. Also, this is his second time at the rodeo. There was nothing that he said that I disagreed with. I understand from ‘insiders’ that he was the last to arrive for the debate, just minutes before the candidates were to take the stage. He and Mr. Cain both went out of their way during the commercial breaks to interact with the other candidates and it appeared to me that both men were very genuine in doing so. Given all this, I would rate Mitt Romney’s performance at three and one-half stars.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman made his one and only visit to Iowa in this debate. Why he was on stage rather than Thad McCotter is a mystery to me. As far as his debate style, he did well. He is articulate and got his ideas across, although he was probably the most liberal of the candidates who took the stage last night. For showing up and not embarrassing himself, I give Mr. Huntsman three stars.
Now, to the last three candidates on stage—all of which tie for the worst performance of the evening.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty looked desperate in his attacks on Michele Bachmann. I was not sure at some point whether we were at a debate for some office in the state of Minnesota or what. Quite frankly, I do not care what Minnesota does. I have come to believe that the ‘executive experience’ that one gets by being a governor does not always translate into the kind of experience that is needed to be President. Tim Pawlenty lost me in the previous debate when he was served up the question about his previous comment on ‘Obmneycare’ and he failed to launch what could have been a significant strike on Mitt Romney. His attacks on Michele Bachmann to me were reminiscent of the Senate debate between Hillary Clinton and her GOP opponent in 2000 when Mrs. Clinton was first running for the NY Senate seat. Bad form for Pawlenty and I believe that he all but took himself out of the race last evening. Gov. Pawlenty gets one star…and that is for attending.
Michele Bachmann started out the debate with her standard campaign rhetoric and then when she saw that would not work decided to portray herself as a victim. Her body language, her deer in the headlights look when she was questioned, her delay at one point in returning to the podium after a break demonstrated to me that she is not as confident as she would like everyone to believe she is. I will give Cong. Bachmann one and one-half stars. She gets a boost over these other two because of the way that she answered Byron York’s question about ‘submission’ to her husband. I was very disappointed in Byron—as he is a columnist that is on my must read list.
Lastly, Congressman Ron Paul. His supporters were the most boisterous and confrontational of the night. Bret Baier asked repeatedly of the audience to not applaud after answers, but those requests fell on deaf ears with his supporters. Ron Paul’s answers to the questions were rambling, disjointed, and left me asking more often than not “What did he just say?”. Sen. Santorum owned him on the issue of nuclear weapons in Iran and his ‘peace at no cost’ mantra did not play well with the rest of the adults in the auditorium. His supporters are loyal and seem to be out to make a point. I believe that it is a very real possibility that he could win the Ames Straw Poll tomorrow—but it will be somewhat like Roger Maris’s 61 home run season—with an asterisk after it. Cong. Paul gets one star from me, but then I have to penalize him for the behavior of his supporters, so he nets a zero.
Looking forward to tomorrow’s Ames Straw Poll. Now it will get even more interesting.