Republican presidential debates, we hardly knew thee.
Well, not exactly.
Last night’s debate in Mesa, Arizona, the 20th and quite possibly the last such gathering of the remaining four GOP presidential hopefuls (a March 19 debate in Portland, Oregon, is hanging by a thread), made us more than a little familiar with the Republican field –and shaped the race in ways the party elders perhaps never anticipated when all of this began last year.
If not for the debates . . .
- Does Michele Bachmann have her 15 minutes of fame (literally about that much time), winning last August’s Ames straw poll before flaming out in the Iowa caucuses?
- Would anyone still remember Herman Cain, also another flash in the pan whose moment in the sun, to paraphrase one of his pizza rivals, lasted all of 30 minutes or less?
- Would Rick Perry, a forensic underachiever (to put it mildly), have crashed and burned so rapidly?
- Would Newt Gingrich still be alive and kicking (how much of a pulse: good question)?
- Would Mitt Romney, absent the distractions the debates have provided, be in a better position to capture the nomination – instead of his current precarious situation?
As for Wednesday’s debate, the first time the candidates have met one stage since the Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Fla., the following stood out:
- The first 30 minutes aren’t not exactly a Rick Santorum highlight reel. He’s visibly nervous in his opening statement, as opposed to a sharper Romney. Then he has to endure a character attack from Ron Paul (CNN should have used a split screen, to show what had to have been a beaming Romney). Finally, a long defense of earmarks by for the former Pennsylvania senator is met with audience silence – moments later, even a few boos. The Paul campaign has run an attack ad on Santorum’s fiscal conservative credentials. Why he’s chosen to largely ignore Romney (and vice versa) remains one of the great overlooked stories of this election.
- Romney came prepared for this debate – his attack on Santorum for supporting Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey being a good example (this being an issue that came up in early January, then disappeared until Wednesday night in Mesa). While the audience is supportive and the candidate’s on the game, once again we face the biggest conundrum of the GOP race: why is it that Romney, usually very good in these debates, can’t generate the same kind of enthusiasm on the campaign trail? Perhaps a feistier campaign style and new tax plan will at last light a fire under his cause between now, and the next two Tuesday’s slate of primaries.
- During a four-candidate discussion about the federal government, not a mention about President Obama de-funding the school-choice “opportunity scholarship program for Washington, D.C.’s public schools (that $20 million line-item apparently too much for the $68.9 billion Department of Education budget). House Speaker John Boehner forced Obama’s hand on this in 2011, keeping the program alive. It was a golden opportunity for a candidate to highlight a terrible presidential decision.
- Whereas Paul takes the “greatest misconception of you” question head-on, Romney sidesteps it. Less than a week before two votes that could decide the fate of his campaign, it was a missed opportunity for the cautious Romney to talk about that elephant in the elephants’ room – his inability to connect with movement conservatives.
Final thought: Lincoln and Douglas debated seven times, beginning on Aug. 21 and ending on Oct. 15, during their fabled Senate race back in 1858 (in case you’re curious: the 2012 Republican held their seventh debate about 17 weeks ago, on Oct. 11). History recorded a spirited discussion about a defining issue of the time – black Americans’ legal rights – and America’s course following that year’s Dred Scott decision and the expansion of slavery in new territories.
Lincoln lost the battle; the election went to his Democratic opponent. Two years later, as the Republican presidential nominee, he’d find a job and a home at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Moral of the story: Lincoln characterized his 1858 Senate defeat as “a slip and not a fall”.
Fast forward to Mesa, not coincidentally also a site of Cactus League spring training: now that the debates may be over, was there a future president in these 20 gatherings?
(photo credit: Bo Insogna)