Once upon a time, in a world before cable news and early primaries, there was a can’t-miss soiree called “The Summit at the Sands”.
What we learned Tuesday night in Las Vegas: Herman, Mitt and Rick aren’t to be confused with Frank, Sammy and Dean.
The Republican presidential hopefuls’ latest debate – this week’s stop on the tour, Sin City’s Sands Expo and Convention Center (next stop: Michigan, Nov. 9) – had a surreal quality to it.
The idea was to talk western issues, seeing as the event was co-sponsored by the Western Republican Leadership Conference. Problem was: the only “western” candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, was a no-show.
Four other GOP candidates, in addition to Huntsman, say they’ll boycott next winter’s Nevada caucuses – a show of solidarity to protest the Silver State pressuring New Hampshire to advance its primary date.
But only Huntsman, who toils in relative anonymity save for these debates, decided to go the extra mile of taking a pass on a free night of national exposure.
Add to the strangeness CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the debate’s moderator. The son of fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, he’s urban chic (lives in a $4.3 million converted firehouse in Greenwich Village) and prefers tight black t-shirts to Brook Brothers button-downs.
In short, not the type of fella one sees hanging out at a GOP debate, much less loitering about a casino, looking for loose slots (allow me to add: I though Cooper did a very good job of trying to play traffic cop).
Then again, debates and Las Vegas are a union not even an Elvis minister would bless: debates are all about beating the clock word-wise; good luck finding a clock in a casino.
As for the debate itself, these were the anticipated plots:
- Would Herman Cain shine (and withstand the scrutiny) in his first turn as the momentum candidate?
- Would Mitt Romney’s faith enter the conversation, given Nevada’s Mormon population (according to exit polls, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made up a quarter of 2008 Nevada caucus-goers and half of Romney's total votes)?
- Would Texas Gov. Rick “I’m Not the Best Debater Up There” Perry at last shine in the national spotlight by doing something he’s failed to do so far: shift the conversation to jobs and electability?
- Perry’s opening statement is an non-veiled swipe at Romney (dubious conservative credentials – something Rush Limbaugh got into the other day); Michele Bachmann wastes no time going after Cain on taxes (once a tax is enacted, it only goes up), followed by Santorum somehow linking the flat tax to a birth-rate decline, Perry taking it straight to no-taxes New Hampshire, and Ron Paul uttering the “r” word (“regressive”). If you had Cain getting jumped less than 30 seconds after the introductions, go to the cage and collect your winnings.
- Just a thought, as we’re 30 minutes in and the debate is more national than regional in its conversation. A true “western” debate would get into mankind vs. endangered species, water management, Yucca Mountain and changing demographics (rising Latino clout) to name just four. Let’s see if any of these are covered.
- Perry’s second attack on Romney and it’s personal: he accuses Romney of knowingly employing illegal aliens in his household (recycled from the 2008 campaign). I grasp the concept of going after Romney like this (standing next to him, get in his space, get under his skin and get him off his game). But I don’t understand the logic of this particular topic given Perry’s own mixed record (which Tom Tancredo has trashed).
- “Texas Ranger Recon Teams”. Hey, who’s Chuck Norris endorsing . . .?
- Yucca Mountain gets a shout-out – albeit, a quick one. Still waiting for water and critters . . .
- Not sure if there will be a “summit” at the Sands, or anywhere else in the Lower 48, to broker a peace between Perry and Romney. One gets the impression these two don’t like each other on a personal level – and, as the nominee, either would just as soon do without the other’s help.
- Ron Paul isn’t the only person in Washington suggesting that it’s time to cut foreign aid to Israel. But to say, as the congressman just did: “aid to Israel doesn’t help them”? Even in a town full of strange acts, Paul stands out.
- Gingrich calls for seven Lincoln-Douglas-style presidential debates next year. Consider yourselves warned.
A good night for: Romney. A combination of a friendly audience (a rarity, for him, in these early-state debates) and attacks that, at times, seemed over the top. As always, Romney enjoyed a stature gap. However, that’s yet to translate to a gain in popular support.
Not as good a night for: Perry. The debate called for slicing into Romney with surgical precision. Perry went about it like a Texas chainsaw massacre.
Also not a good night for: Cain. He needs more than “apples and oranges” metaphors to explain the flat tax. And he disappeared about halfway through the debate, once the subject changed.
Still, a profitable night for: Vegas, baby. Whereas President Obama once put the town in a bad light, the GOP and CNN came to town and pumped some needed money into the local economy.
Forget about the candidates: the House always wins.