Monday, September 26, 2011

Taking Apart the Orlando Debate: Romney's Minor Win


Monday, September 26, 2011

This past Thursday the Republicans held a debate in Orlando.

I've tabulated out some letter grades for the candidates based on their performance. Although there was no outright "winner" last week, Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum did the best job meeting their present campaign needs.

  • Romney       B+
  • Johnson       B+
  • Santorum    B+
  • Cain              B
  • Gingrich       B
  • Perry            B
  • Paul              B-
  • Huntsman    C+
  • Bachmann    C

Had I published these comments on Friday or over the weekend I would have felt compelled to focus on the predictable Perry/Romney tussle and its implications for their primary campaign showdown. But last Thursday's debate was more compelling than that, and involved a wider selection of candidates than the two governors.

That said, Romney landed the upper hand. Whether using his "professorial" or "fatherly" delivery, Romney confidently shut down Rick Perry's attacks on his record. The Republican Party has a peculiar way of putting their candidates (McCain 2000, Romney 2008) through the ringer, throwing a long list of damning accusations at them — "moderate" or "flip-flopper" — until their nomination bid is sabotaged, only to resurrect their candidate in the following election cycle. While it's yet to be seen if this will ultimately hold true for Romney, it's remarkable that the "flip-flopper" accusation is now in the Romney arsenal and is frequently being used against Rick Perry.

As for Perry, I found his attempted 4th quarter attack on Romney's inconsistent record to be sloppy and juvenile in tone and delivery. There's a debate in New Hampshire in just over two weeks. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman stand to be crowd favorites then, and I see Perry's polling lead diminishing by that time. Come mid-October I expect Romney and Perry to be tied nationally, with Perry struggling to recapture the profile he assumed after announcing his candidacy.

Columnists are touting Rick Santorum as the Bachmann-killer of late, and his debate presence has inflated in recent weeks. The Senator is simply a better off-the-cuff conversant than Ms. Bachmann. Whereas Bachmann's debate buzzlines are normally directed at the President or nobody in particular, Santorum has been engaging Romney, Perry, Huntsman, Gingrich, Cain and policy discussions. Voters pick up on these "social capabilities" and interpret a candidate's inability to touch off discussion with others as a weakness. In this regard, Gingrich and Santorum have done a fine job inserting themselves into the fray and garnering positive attention because of it. Huntsman, by comparison, has done poorly in this regard, and is still sitting on the outside with Michelle Bachmann. 

Pithy, Johnson has a confidence and composure that stands out on stage. He has nothing to lose in his select few televised responses to odd debate questions, and he impressed the audience with good humor.

What we saw from Johnson — a strong performance from a candidate outside of the mainstream, marked by jokes and a surprisingly experienced tone — is what helped Mike Huckabee leap onto the national consciousness and finish an impressive second in the nomination.

I can't help but think the Huntsman campaign was hoping their candidate would gain a similar spotlight on Thursday, but that medal went to Johnson. The tone of Thursday's conversation should have opened a window for Huntsman. In previous debates, skirmishes  between candidates and an environment begging for comedy were met with awkward statements and stilted humor. This more relaxed terrain should have favored what I know to be Huntsman's demeanor, but it wasn't so.

Regardless, the Huntsman campaign returns to New Hampshire looking to build on recent polling gains. Most of the candidates on the stage aren't campaigning the way Huntsman is in New Hampshire, and his persistence there—should it earn him a strong second place finish in the primary—is a token redeemable for continued consideration by GOP voters in later primary states. That is a much better position than Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, and perhaps Paul when it comes to carrying states and adding up electoral votes.

In short, New Hampshire is a powerful tool and campaign opportunity for a GOP candidate looking to win over dedicated conservative voters. This is how Huntsman's "path to the nomination" is framed, but with each lackluster debate performance this is quickly becoming more difficult.

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