Republican Face-Off

The GOP presidential candidate campaign takes off.

Last night, a group of seven GOP presidential hopefuls held the second Republican debate of the season at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. For three of those candidates, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann, it was the first appearance of the 2012 election campaign. The other four panelists were Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Overall, the debate was a very civil affair, even surprisingly so. None of the candidates attacked each other, focusing almost exclusively on challenging the Obama administration's agenda. And although there was no discernible victor, Monday night’s debate was certainly a watershed moment in the developing campaign season, offering the first near-complete look at the Republican presidential field.

Depending on which poll one believes, the current GOP front-runner is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. What kind of front-runner? According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, one tied with Barack Obama at 47 percent apiece, and the leading Republican candidate to date. But according to a more recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, although Romney is still Mr. Obama's closest rival, he trails the president by a 51 to 38 percent margin. Romney's principal advantage is a high-degree of name recognition. His principal disadvantage is a similar degree of recognition regarding RomneyCare, the Massachusetts healthcare plan that Democrats purportedly used as a model to create President Obama's healthcare overhaul plan.

This apparent Achilles’ heel has earned Romney significant ridicule from fellow presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty in recent days. Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, has made efforts to target Romney directly, most recently in the coining of the term “ObamneyCare.” Although strategically concerned with proving that he is a threat to the presumptive GOP front-runner, Pawlenty has also struggled with charisma, which he hopes a solid conservative record will overshadow. This is unlike Pawlenty’s fellow Minnesotan and newly-confirmed GOP presidential contender Rep. Michelle Bachmann. A Tea Party favorite, Bachmann’s primary challenges are broadening her support base and proving that, while she is ambitious, she is also a serious candidate. Bachmann stands the greatest chance at channeling enthusiastic Sarah Palin supporters in the absence of the former Alaskan governor’s run, which might explain why her newly-hired campaign consultant, Ed Rollins, criticized Sarah Palin almost immediately upon getting the job.

A number of pundits thought businessman Herman Cain, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, won the first GOP debate in South Carolina in May. With no political experience -- which he considers an advantage in the current political climate -- Cain is the "outsider candidate." And although he suffers from a lack of name recognition, a Gallup poll declared his supporters to be the "most fervent" of any GOP candidate. He is also adept as using the same social media Barack Obama used to his advantage in 2008.

A key moment emerged early in the debate when Tim Pawlenty was given the opportunity to draw a distinction between himself and Mitt Romney with respect to healthcare and his "ObamneyCare" characterization of Romney's plan. Pawlenty had noted earlier to the press that he did not intend to bring up his neologism because he did not want to create a distracting “rift.” Thus, when CNN moderator John King asked, "If it was Obamneycare on 'Fox News Sunday,' why isn't it Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?" Pawlenty backed down from his association of Romney and Obama’s policy records, reinforcing the idea that he lacks the fire necessary to challenge Obama.

As for Romney, he was very steady, and smartly returned to his overall economic theme of "Obama has failed America" as often as possible without forcing the issue. Another concept he came back to repeatedly was states' rights and the idea that problems should be solved at the local level, or even by private enterprise wherever possible. If there was a moment when he seemed ill at ease, it was when he explain the nuances of his differences with the Obama administration regarding the auto bailouts. As the purported front-runner going into the debate, there was nothing that occurred last night which would radically alter that perception.

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