As luck (and Luck) would have it, Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa began just moments after the awarding of the Heisman Trophy in Manhattan.
One could argue that Mitt Romney, at this particular moment, is the Andrew Luck of the Republican field – nice clean-cut fella, started out as the prohibitive favorite, kept to a conservative game plan, and in the end couldn’t sway voters looking for a flashier alternative.
And Newt Gingrich? He’d be the Robert Griffin III of the still-evolving contest – no one saw it coming, few paid attention to him until recently, who’d have predicted him winning this before the season began?
That’s pretty much it for the similarities between the two Saturday events (unless you want to get into a strained analogy of Luck’s draft status and Romney’s electability). The Heisman broadcast featured five young men with bright futures ahead of them. The GOP debate, televised nationally on ABC, was all about six candidates (absent: Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman) with futures not so easy to predict.
As for what transpired in Des Moines, these observations:
- Tale of the Tape. The first question is how many jobs the candidates will create in their first White House terms. Romney (he’s promised 11.5 million jobs) starts reciting seven points on job creation, Gingrich throws out a dizzying array of stats and numbers, Michele Bachmann steals a page from someone else’s page (she utters “win-win-win”, a rip-off of Cain’s “9-9-9”). Welcome to the GOP primary: Romney’s the technocrat, Gingrich is the professor, Bachmann’s the sloganeer.
- Taking the Bait. Mitt doesn’t, Newt does. Given the opportunity to go after Gingrich on record and consistency, Romney takes a pass. But he does mock Gingrich for lunar mining. Gingrich, on the other hand, is personal – saying the only reason why Romney’s not a career politician is because he lost of Teddy Kennedy in a 1994 Senate race. And the crowd doesn’t care for it. Here’s where Romney misses out, I think. Gingrich, for example, wants to eliminate the capital-gains tax, which will never happen in Washington. Why not use that as an example of Gingrich’s longtime habit of intellectual daydreaming/wheelspinning vs. actual results.
- Mortgaging His Present. It’s commercial time and Fred Thompson – actor, former Tennessee senator and 2008 presidential hopeful – is hawking reverse mortgages. Four years ago, at this time, Thompson was looking for lightning in a bottle in Iowa. It didn’t happen. He finished third in the caucuses, fifth in New Hampshire. After a third-place finish in South Carolina, Thompson dropped out. Not everyone’s Mike Huckabee when it comes to graceful landings.
- Middle East. Again, an example of why the Romney candidacy sputters (I’m only saying this because it’s Mitt’s unstated goal tonight and he’s failing at it: damage Gingrich). On the topic of Gingrich having referenced the Palestinians as an “invented people”, it took the former Massachusetts governor the better part of two awkward minutes to mention “volatile words” and, later, “bomb-thrower”. What he should have said, more bluntly: this is but one example of why a Gingrich presidency seems predestined to fail: bull in a china shop; simply not presidential to shoot from the lip.
- Pulse of the Voter. Did you hear the applause when Paul went into his spiel about government overreaching into citizens’ lives (such as Obamacare)? This is the core of his appeal. It’s cleaner and simpler than anything his rivals offer. And it’s why, in my opinion, Paul’s the sleeper to watch on Jan. 3 (btw, nice hat-tip by Romney to Paul’s die-hard sign brigade).
- Winners: Paul, who seemed to strike the strongest chord with the audience; Bachmann, for her first strong performance since Ames; ABC’s moderating duo of Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, for not once being lectured by Gingrich.
- Losers: Romney, for more than once missing chances to cleanly and clearly make the case against Gingrich, plus that $10,000 wager with Perry (the kind of money average voters can’t relate to); Gingrich, not because he was wounded (he wasn’t) but rather because he was a negative litmus test (the Palestinian remark; an awkward question about what infidelity says about a man). Doesn’t bode well for his general-election prospects.
- The road to the White House has relatively few stops over the holiday season. Gingrich and Huntsman have agreed to a Lincoln-Douglas debate in New Hampshire on the 12th. A Fox News/Iowa GOP debate in Sioux City is slated for the 15th. No one’s quite sure of the fate of the Dec. 27th debate that, so far, is limited to Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and his hair (Bachmann, Huntsman, Paul, Perry and Romney have declined, much to The Donald’s chagrin).
Fourteen shopping days to Christmas.
The Iowa caucuses: 24 days away and closing fast -- as is the window for stopping Gingrich from winning the Republicans’ first vote.