Presidential debates can produce memorable attack lines. Recall Ronald Reagan telling Jimmy Carter “there you go again” in 1980, or Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle in 1988, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
Although this year’s Republican debates haven’t produced anything as momentous as those utterances, several candidates have torpedoed themselves well enough to obviate the need for attacks from others.
And the outsized role of debates in this campaign have magnified the results. The debates arguably have destroyed the campaign of Rick Perry and raised Newt Gingrich from the dead to front-runner.
put together a list of the debates’ eight most memorable attacks. Here they are:
1. “Rick Perry’s ‘heartless’ moment”
When the Texas governor faced strong attacks in the Sept. 23 debate for favoring tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants, he hit back with passion. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said. Conservatives jumped all over that liberal-sounding response, and he ended up apologizing. Perry had been the front-runner for a few weeks, but his poll numbers tanked after the comment.
2. “Newt Gingrich plays the Ted Kennedy card”
Now that the former House speaker has risen up to challenge previous front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor has gone on the offensive. In the Dec. 10 debate, he accused Gingrich of being a career politician. Gingrich’s response: “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994.”
3. “Tim Pawlenty’s whiff”
On June 7, the former Minnesota governor coined the term Obamneycare for the healthcare reform that Romney implemented in Massachusetts — a plan that strongly resembled the reform plan President Barack Obama implemented last year. So it figured that Pawlenty would rip into Romney at the next day’s debate. But Pawlenty pulled his punches, and he was out of the campaign by mid-August. He has endorsed Romney.
4. “Mitt Romney’s wager”
In the Dec. 10 debate, Perry accused Romney of editing out a line trumpeting his state’s healthcare plan as a national model in a reprint of a book he wrote. Romney indignantly told Perry he had his facts wrong and offered a $10,000 bet to back that up. Even before that remark, Romney had faced criticism for being out of touch with Americans’ economic woes, as he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to his role as co-founder of private equity firm Bain Capital. The offer of a $10,000 wager didn’t do much to counter that view. And it gave Democrats ammunition for their anti-GOP publicity machine.
5. “9-9-9 is the devil upside down”
That was Michele Bachmann’s line describing Herman Cain’s tax plan in an October debate. Actually, her exact words were, “When you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details.” The Minnesota representative could have used a line like that in August or September when her campaign had a chance.
6. “Perry’s kamikaze mission to highlight Romney’s hiring of ‘illegals’”
Perry’s one shining moment may have come in an October debate when he lambasted Romney for hiring illegal immigrants. Actually, Romney hired a landscaping company that had hired undocumented Guatemalan workers. Romney offered a spirited defense. But one of his lines was a bit ill-chosen. Romney said he had told the landscaping company during his 2008 presidential bid that illegal immigrants couldn’t be seen working for him because “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!” Needless to say, that line too has made a strong entry into the Democratic propaganda effort.
7. “Meet ‘Newt Romney’”
This was another zinger from Bachmann. She unveiled the term during the Dec. 10 debate to describe the lack of differences between the two front-runners.
8. “Newt vs. the media”
Part of Gingrich’s strength during the debates came from the powerful oratory he used to express substantive policy ideas. But he also gained traction by routinely attacking moderators and their questions. That’s a lot easier than attacking fellow candidates, as the moderators can’t fight back. Moreover, given conservatives’ antipathy toward the mainstream media, the strategy helped build Gingrich’s credibility among the party’s right wing.
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