The Ames straw poll may be an exercise in utter political pointlessness, but the run-up debate Fox News treated us to on Thursday was better than exhibition season football.
And as an occasional critic of Fox, I have to say, moderator Bret Baier and inquisitor Chris Wallace posed some genuinely tough, Tim Russert-esque queries. Indeed, Wallace was so pointed in one that Newt Gingrich accused him of asking “gotcha questions.” (Think of the cognitive dissonance poor befuddled Sean Hannity must have suffered as he watched: Gotcha questions? That’s what the liberal media always does to conservatives …Has Chris become a liberal?)
If the debate panelists did a first-rate job, the same can’t be said for the three most accomplished GOP candidates, ex governors Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman.
Start with the frontrunning Mitt Romney. His Republican rivals didn’t really lay a glove on him, but the questioners certainly did. Pressed on his lack of leadership during the debt ceiling debate to his jobs record at Bain Capital to RomneyCare, Mitt found himself on the
defensive as often as not.
This was Huntsman’s debut as a presidential debater, and frankly, he mostly muffed it. He seemed to have a frog stuck in his throat for the first half of the debate, but even when he found his footing, he had little to say beyond that he’s running on his record as governor of
As for Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota tried to take on fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann, but Bachmann gave every bit as good as she got.
Pawlenty charged that Bachmann has no accomplishments, while Bachmann accused Pawlenty, during his governorship, of implementing (hmmm), praising, or flirting with policies he now excoriates.
Pawlenty’s critique struck me as more accurate than Bachmann’s — and yet the bet here is that she helped herself with the true believers more than T-Paw did.
Although he might as well have been in the witness protection program for the early part of the debate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum came back with a strong performance in the later going. A good night does not a strong candidacy make, and it’s very hard to see Santorum going anywhere. Still, he has a right to be pleased with himself today.
So, too, does Ron Paul. Yes, he’s chased libertarianism right down the rabbit hole, but he was feisty, fun, and, in his own quirky way, almost forceful. Herman Cain also got off a good line or two and displayed a little winning humility.
Back to Newt. In his post debate interview with Hannity, Gingrich seemed pleased with his take-on-the-questioners approach. But let’s be clear: His was a tinny criticism. Gingrich is an undisciplined, self-indulgent candidate whose team has bailed on him for those very reasons — and he somehow thinks it’s unfair to ask him about that. Why? For that matter, why in the world does he consider it unfair to query him about his incoherent stands on Libya?
One notable index of just how far to the right this field has wandered came when each and every candidate said he or she would reject a deficit reduction deal that included new revenues — even if the proportion of spending cuts to tax increases was 10 to 1. Grover Norquist was no doubt pleased, but anyone who values pragmatic compromise had to be left shaking his head in disbelief.
Bottom line: Fox News was a big winner here. Alas for them, the same can’t be said of any of the major candidates.