Debate Helps No Candidate Break Away From the Pack

Friday, 16 Dec 2011 02:44 PM

By Dan Weil

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Now that the 13 Republican presidential debates of 2011 are over, you might expect that one or two candidates would have established themselves as standing tall – taller certainly than the other contestants. But that’s not the case, as shown by Thursday’s debate, Politico reports.

Front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney did nothing to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

The debate showed that “everybody’s got a horrific weakness,” pollster Frank Luntz told Politico.

Thanks to his leap to the top of the polls, former House Speaker Gingrich got punched with strong attacks, a new phenomenon for him. He took particular heat for the $1.6 million he received for counseling beleaguered mortgage agency Freddie Mac.

His response was less than impressive. Gingrich bragged that when he was working for Freddie, he was “a national figure” and writer of “best-selling books” who didn’t need to make money doing mercenary work.

To be sure, Gingrich finished the debate strong, with several endearing lines of self-deprecation.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, meanwhile, adopted his typical defensive stance, seeking to avoid a major mistake and succeeding at that. The aggressiveness of others’ attacks against Gingrich allowed Romney to stand above the fray, giving him a presidential air.

But he did get into a little spat with Fox News questioner Chris Wallace over whether he had changed his views on gay rights. Romney said he always has opposed gay marriage and always has opposed discrimination against gays, too.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who had risen to front-runner status early in their campaigns, performed well. But it was likely too late to resuscitate their fallen campaigns.

Perry offered a strong critique of the political culture in Washington, D.C. Bachmann took it to Ron Paul on Iran and to Gingrich on lobbying and abortions.

Texas Rep. Paul continued to commit campaign suicide with his advocacy of conciliation toward Iran. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose campaign has never gained any traction, presented himself well as the race’s true conservative. But was anyone listening? Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was unable to make much of a mark, as usual.

With no more debates before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the candidates must now focus on rounding up votes. Gingrich faces a two-pronged challenge.

First, he must show that his status as front-runner in the polls equals actual votes. He has spent very little time in Iowa, so people aren’t going to vote for him based on a face-to-face impression.
In addition, now Gingrich will have to deal with television ads from Romney and others, hitting him on the same issues raised in the debate.

Iowa state Rep. Linda Upmeyer, a Gingrich supporter, says the criticism is having an effect. “Anytime you run attack ads, that’s why you run them — hoping to move the numbers,” she told Politico. “Initially, you are often successful, and then those numbers bounce back.”

The Romney camp was pleased to have at least slowed Gingrich’s momentum in the debate. They view anything less than a decisive Gingrich win in Iowa as a victory for their side.

Meanwhile, Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum hope that the chinks they were able to pound into Gingrich’s armor and Republicans’ quest for anyone but Romney will lead to a surge in momentum for their bids. Don’t count on it.

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