In the initial moments after last night’s debate, Fox News analysis declared that Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann were the winners of the debate. I couldn’t disagree more. Sure, they all had their moments, but Gingrich was able to defend himself in difficult circumstances. He also appealed to Iowa voters by providing the best answer of the night regarding the role of the judiciary.
Rick Santorum was also a winner in my book. His consistent message that he is the conservative in the race with a proven track record who voters can trust to come through at the right time. Instead of picking winners and losers, I’ll examine whether each candidate did what they needed to do in the debate.
Here is my analysis.
Question: Did he do enough in the final debate before the caucuses to carry himself to a victory in the January 3rd caucuses?
Answer: No, but his debate performance in last night’s debate was strong. In the first hour, Gingrich was under fire, which he handled well. In the second hour, Gingrich shined on issues like foreign policy and the courts. The debate moderators were tougher on Gingrich than his opponents were.
Most frontrunners try to avoid making mistakes in the final days before people go to the polls. That typically means that the last thing a candidate in the lead wants to do is debate. That’s not the case for Gingrich, who has used the debates to rehabilitate his campaign through the summer and fall.
The two debates in the last seven days have allowed Gingrich an opportunity to respond to the negative attacks that have come his way. With the debates now over, Gingrich has to use campaign events, paid media, and earned media coverage to counter what other candidates and groups are saying about him. Therein lies the problem for Gingrich. Last night’s debate was full of material which his opponents can use against him. His strong moments in the debate will likely be washed away by the continued attacks against his conservative bona fides.
Question: Can he avoid talking about his foreign policy positions that alienate himself from traditional Republican voters?
Throughout the entire campaign, Paul has enjoyed the luxury of being a fringe candidate, which means that the other candidates have basically ignored him. That has allowed him to organize and campaign without distractions from other campaigns. In many respects Paul has been underestimated by all of his opponents. While it’s difficult to see him winning the nomination, there is no doubt that he could win the Iowa caucuses.
The objectives for the Paul campaign are different now that he is in contention in Iowa. While he said nothing that would alienate his passionate supporters, his foreign policy positions limit his appeal to more mainline Republican voters. If Paul finishes a close second or worse in the caucuses, look no further than his foreign policy positions for the reason for his loss.
Question: Can he deliver a strong, aggressive debate performance when he needs it the most?
Once again Romney had a solid debate, but for a candidate who is supposed to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, his performance was simply adequate. While Romney doesn’t necessarily need to win Iowa, he does need to create some momentum for his campaign. The problem is that Gingrich, and even other candidates who, at times, can give some powerful answers, overshadow Romney on the debate stage.
Romney has a luxury that no other candidate in the race has – he can win Iowa in one of three ways. Option 1 – He can win it outright. Option 2 – Ron Paul can win it, and thus the caucuses lose relevance in the eyes of the media. Option 3 – The results can be so tight between five or six candidates that the results are inconclusive. Still, one would hope that Romney would actually want to impress voters and win instead of merely surviving.
Question: Can Perry deliver a mistake free debate performance where he also shows depth and knowledge on issues?
Once again Perry put forth a solid performance, and the national media seemed to love it. The problem is that the national press doesn’t vote in the caucuses. When talking about his accomplishments as the governor of Texas, Perry came of as strong and knowledgeable. In other instances, Perry was evoking the name of Tim Tebow.
Perry came off as personable and likeable, but he’s fighting for a second chance. He needed to convince voters that he is the candidate around whom they need to rally. That is something that he didn’t do as well.
Question: Can Bachmann differentiate herself from the other conservatives in the field?
As I watched Bachmann whack away at Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, a couple of things came into my head. First, I remembered back to the Straw Poll debate where she and Pawlenty had an ugly debate. She came out on top of that fight, and Pawlenty went home a few days later bloodied and bruised. The difference between then and now is that Bachmann was in the lead then and had to defend her turf. Today, she has little turf to defend.
I give her a lot credit for calling out both Paul and Gingrich, but being the aggressor can backfire, especially in the closing days of a campaign. The second thing that I thought of was the scene from the movie “The Patriot” when Mel Gibson comes back from hacking up his enemies with blood all over his face. Sure it was justified, but still disturbing.
Since Bachmann is the one candidate without TV and radio ads, the last image some voters might have of her is a negative one. While voters want a fighter, campaigns also have to remember that people vote FOR candidates, not against them. I think Bachmann succeeded in tearing her opponents down, but did little to build herself up. Her real competition on the stage was Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. They are the two candidates she’s actually competing with to get votes. In my opinion she did the dirty work, and they will get the benefit.
Question: Can Santorum take the momentum he’s been able to build on the ground and deliver solid debate performance that could help spark his campaign?
This debate unfolded perfectly for Santorum. Unlike most of the other debates, it seemed like he was provided a few more opportunities to distinguish himself from his opponents, and he did so very effectively. Santorum attacked both Gingrich and Romney on core conservative principles. He reminded people that Gingrich lost the speakership because conservatives were frustrated with him. He then said that, when someone wanted a conservative bill passed, they came to him, not Gingrich. Santorum also used an opportunity to attack Romney on gay marriage.
The difference between his attacks on Gingrich and Romney and Bachmann’s is that Santorum used the entire debate to underscore that he is the consistent conservative in the race – the conservative with a proven record of results that people can trust. He also scored points with his answers on limiting judicial review, foreign policy, and reinvigorating the manufacturing sector. Santorum is one of the few candidates who probably gained support last night.
Question: Can Huntsman show that he’s a serious contender who can compete in New Hampshire?
If this race was just between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman it would be a real contest, but it’s not. Voters want to believe in America, but Huntsman constantly insists that America is weak, and that it’s on the decline.
Winners: Gingrich, Santorum
Solid Performances: Bachmann, Romney, Perry
Losers: Paul, Huntsman
- Gingrich Assailed by Debate Rivals, Fights Back – ABC News (abcnews.go.com)
- One Last Go-Around: Final Pre-Caucus Debate A Key Moment For Newt Gingrich (huffingtonpost.com)
- GOP Candidates Avoid Fireworks In Final Debate Before Iowa Caucuses (huffingtonpost.com)
- Gingrich Needs More Than Just Strong Debate Performances (theiowarepublican.com)
- The Seven Days That Could Alter The Entire Race (theiowarepublican.com)
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