The real winner of Monday night’s Republican presidential debate wasn’t any of the seven candidates on the stage, it was the tea party, analysts agree.
While Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann garnered most of the plaudits for the New Hampshire debate it was the growing influence of the party-within-a-Party that set the tone and the agenda for the two-hour debate.
Even left-leaning MSNBC acknowledged the inevitable. “We’re all tea partiers now,” the TV station’s web blog admitted.
Independent pollsters John Zogby and Matt Towery both agreed with that assessment in interviews with Newsmax on the day following the first major debate of the campaign.
“The tea party set the agenda. It is driving the debate so far and likely to drive it into the primary season,” said Zogby. “They are clearly the most intense Republican primary voters – and the loudest – and the proof was at the debate.”
Towery said the tea party is more than a party, it’s a “state of mind,” that the rest of the GOP is now catching up to. “The Republican electorate as a whole has drifted in the direction of the principles and the issues that the tea party was initially concerned about when people weren’t focusing.”
And that has helped those candidates backed by the movement, including Bachmann who pointed out during the debate that she is chairman of the tea party caucus on Capitol Hill.
“The candidates who appealed to the tea party positions did the best,” said Towery. “Bachmann did very well. Most everyone feels like she has emerged to be a top tier candidate.”
Dick Armey, the movement’s éminence grise, said the debate “reflected the profound influence that the tea party has had so far on the Republican field,” adding, “Now comes the rigorous work of identifying the candidates who can walk the walk. That’s what the primary process is for.
“I firmly believe that the candidate that can unite independent Tea Partiers and Republicans will be the one most able to defeat Barack Obama next November," Armey added.
Other tea party leaders were equally ecstatic. Mark Meckler, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, said, “The issues and positions were defined by the movement, and the differences between the candidates were measured only in the degree of their adherence to tea party principles.
“The person with the most to gain, Michele Bachmann, gained the most. This was her first debate appearance, and she seemed comfortable and in command of the issues. It was a solid introduction to the nation.”
The general view among pundits was that Bachmann shone. Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, said, “Bachmann is the candidate that Sarah Palin was supposed to be. If you wanted a Mama Grizzly, Bachmann repeatedly reminded you that she'd fostered more than 20 children. If you wanted someone who wasn't a career politician, Bachmann didn't run for office until 2006.
“Her candidacy has mostly been greeted as a longshot bid, but on the stage last night, she came across as one of the primary's clear heavyweights.”
One of the debate questions expressed concern among more traditional Republicans that the tea party is taking over. “I’m not a libertarian Republican. I’m not a Tea Party Republican. I’m just a mainstream Republican,” said Terry Pfaff, a former candidate for New Hampshire State Senate.
“How can you convince me and assure me that you’ll bring a balance and you won’t be torn to one side or the other for many factions within the party?”
Working within time constraints, moderator John King only asked Bachmann and other tea party-aligned candidates, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain for answers.
Bachmann described the movement as a “wide swath of America” including disaffected Democrats, independents and the non-political as well as Republicans and libertarians “That’s why the left fears it so much, because they’re people who simply want to take the country back.”
Santorum called the tea party “a great backstop for America,” adding, “It is absolutely essential that we have that backbone to the Republican Party going into this election,” while Cain said fears that tea party members are too negative and critical are unfounded.
It was questions and comments like these that show how the tea party is now in the catbird seat when it comes to influencing the GOP’s pick for the White House, say both Zogby and Towery.
“The debaters were all on the right,” said Zogby, chairman of IBOPE Zogby International. “No-one was staking out more moderate ground – and that is surprising in New Hampshire.”
But he warned the race is not over yet. “It won’t be enough just to say we hate Obama. When you go into a general election you have to have some kind of appeal to moderates and I don’t know if they can do that.
“What happens in Congress is going to define where we are in September and October,” Zogby added. “On the debt limit and the budget, are the tea party representatives in Congress going to say to their voters I got things done but I had to sell out, or are they going to say I held on to my principles and got nothing done?”
Towery, president and CEO of InsiderAdvantage agreed with that analysis. “There’s no doubt the whole Republican debate has gone to the right,” he said. “I can’t imagine a McCain-like candidate emerging in 2012.”
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