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Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who announced his candidacy last week, is seemingly another candidate with limited appeal due to his devoutly socially conservative positions on issues like gay marriage and abortion. Yet since his announcement, a Gallup poll showed his support had tripled, putting him in a fifth-place tie with Pawlenty. Rick Santorum came across as personable and seemed most comfortable discussing questions regarding the separation of church and state and abortion, where he too was given a chance to challenge Romney on the latter’s accused flip from pro-choice to pro-life. Much like Pawlenty, he chose to elucidate his own “consistently” pro-life position on the issue instead. Santorum was also comfortable with respect to questions about America’s role in the Middle East, and whether or not we should shut down non-vital military bases, accusing the Obama administration of an “overall policy failure.”
Coming into the debate bruised from the sudden departure of his senior campaign staff, Newt Gingrich performed exactly as expected, and was perhaps the most effective candidate in terms of respecting the time limits for answering questions and offering rebuttals. His strongest moments of the night occurred when he spoke about immigration and the “false choices” we’ve been presented between rounding up 20 million illegals or granting them amnesty, and when he spoke about the need for implementing a “totally new strategy” for dealing with international terror. In response to one of the only testy exchanges of the night, Gingrich defended Herman Cain, who was asked about singling out Muslims for a “loyalty test” before they could work in his administration, a charge Cain said did not accurately reflect his actual statement. Gingrich reminded Americans that there were Muslims determined to destroy this country, and that anyone who couldn’t express unquestioning loyalty to the nation shouldn’t be working for the government.
Michele Bachmann made every effort to be a factor, and to some extent she was successful, if somewhat forced. She used the debate as an opportunity to formally announce her candidacy, and drew applause when she loudly proclaimed that Obama would be “a one-term president.” Her strongest moment of the night came when, despite her opposition to gay marriage, she promised that, as president, she wouldn’t interfere with any state that chose to approve a law legalizing it. Like Santorum, she expressed a strong pro-life position, saying that the “miniscule” numbers of abortions necessitated by such things as a threat to the mother’s life distracted from the overall pro-life argument.
Other than defending himself with regard to the Muslim loyalty question, Herman Cain didn’t say anything one way or the other that would raise or lower his overall standing among the candidates. He took a businessman’s approach to most of the economic questions, and seemed strongest when he made it clear that he supported right to work laws, like the one currently being debated in New Hampshire, as well as his belief that Social Security should be privatized as it has been in Chile.
Ron Paul was Ron Paul: somewhat terse, feisty, and not afraid to score points whenever the subject of limited government and America’s foreign policy came up. His best moments of the night came when he drew applause for saying that government should do virtually nothing to “assist” private enterprise, and when he reminded the crowd that the Obama administration’s weak dollar policy is driving capital and jobs out of the country. He also insisted that we get completely out of the Middle East as soon as possible, reinforcing his radical isolationist views.
With respect to general Republican talking points of debt control and lowering taxes, there was nothing that distinguished one candidate from another. On a host of other issues, including gays in the military, there were mild disagreements, with Cain and Paul having no problem with the new rules, while the other five candidates would defer to military experts. With respect to gay marriage, Cain and Bachmann would defer to the states, Paul would get the government out of the marriage business altogether, and the other four candidates supported the federal Defense of Marriage Act currently on the books. All of the candidates were impressed with the quality of the debate, and the quality of the manner in which it was conducted, with Pawlenty, Romney and Gingrich giving kudos to the people of New Hampshire for their efforts.
So who won the debate? If one assumes winning reflects itself in a surge of support for one candidate or another that wasn’t there prior to the evening’s contest, the question would be very difficult to answer. If it’s about who’s the leading contender for the GOP nomination, no one did anything to wrest that mantle from Mitt Romney.
On the other hand, on a night where there was no clear-cut winner in the debate, Mr. Pawlenty appeared to be the one candidate who stuck out on the other end of the spectrum. Of all the candidates, he seems least equipped for what is likely to be a bruising battle for any GOP candidate taking on both the president and a largely sycophantic mainstream media.
Perhaps Herman Cain offered the most insight into what last night was all about. He said that all of the Republicans at the debate were good candidates, and it will take time for people to get to know them better. For a race that has been criticized as slow-starting with reluctant candidates, and, indeed, with lesser-known candidates still waiting in the wings, it may have been the most insightful thing anyone said all night.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.
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