AMES, Iowa—If Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate was a reality TV show, it would be Survivor.
Tim Pawlenty, having pulled his punches in an earlier debate, needed to show that he could go for the jugular of opponents. Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, whose campaigns were already doing very well, needed to turn in performances that would solidify their positions at the front of the field. Newt Gingrich had to do well enough to fend off the vultures circling his embattled candidacy, while Jon Huntsman needed to demonstrate that his moderate Republicanism was viable. Long-shot contenders Rick Santorum and Herman Cain had to register enough with voters to justify their place on the stage. Perhaps only Ron Paul had no need to prove anything; he has always marched to the beat of his own drum and run a campaign more about promoting his libertarian views than winning the White House.
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But if the debate was a reality show, viewers already knew that another contestant would soon be joining, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry expected to enter the race on Saturday. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, planned to attend the Iowa State Fair on Friday morning in what is widely seen as one last effort to stay in the limelight a bit longer, although few anticipate she will join the race. Perry’s impending candidacy and Palin’s flirtation seemed to lessen the debate’s importance before it even began, which certainly was what both hoped it would do.
I long ago gave up trying to guess who “won” a debate or how voters might react to it. But this event, sponsored by Fox News and The Washington Examiner and held on the campus of Iowa State University, was far more interesting than most. It featured more engaging and provocative questions and did a better job of keeping me awake than many other such affairs in recent years. One question in particular, asked of Bachmann by conservative Examiner columnist Byron York about a comment she had made five years ago, suggesting that wives should be submissive to their husbands, seemed to momentarily change the barometric pressure in the Stephens Auditorium media center adjacent to the debate hall; journalists leaned forward in anticipation, wondering how she would handle it. When Bachmann deflected the question easily, after a “thank-you for that question, Byron,” she more than proved that she could play at this level.
It is not an exaggeration to say that for Pawlenty, this debate and Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll is do or die for his struggling campaign. An earlier underwhelming debate performance had caused his fundraising to slow down enormously and his campaign to lose considerable altitude. But Pawlenty seemed to pass at least the first of his two big tests this week, turning from Mr. Minnesota Nice to an attacker who aggressively went after both Bachmann and Romney. Although it’s far too strong to say that he “won” the debate, he did seem to preserve his viability for at least another 48 hours.
If there was a surprise showing on Thursday night, it was that Santorum, who few have seen as a real contender for the nomination, turned in a strong performance and demonstrated the tenacity that was his trademark when he served in the Senate. Santorum has spent more time than any other candidate in the farthest reaches of this 99-county state; his effort may not pay off for him, but his debating skill certainly earned him a place on the stage.
The two candidates who seemed badly out of their league were Cain and Huntsman. Both seemed to have more in common with Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, two minor candidates who were wisely left out of the debate. It will be interesting to see whether Cain and Huntsman will be included in future debates; it’s unclear why they should.
Gingrich had one of the more curious performances: He turned testy when asked questions he deemed provocative, yet seemed almost professorial at other times. Many observers seemed to appreciate the irony of the former Fox News contributor attacking questioners from his old network with a zeal that one might normally expect for the liberal media. Gingrich’s real test will come on Saturday, although he emphasized several times that the campaign was still young, an apparent concession that won’t achieve a breakthrough this weekend.
While this debate and Saturday’s straw poll are hardly predictive of who will win the Republican nomination, the two events do mark the real beginning of the 2012 campaign, notwithstanding Perry’s late entry and the Palin distraction. With the economy worsening and showing few signs it will revive before the general election, this week’s events in Ames mark the beginning of the Republican nominating process. The prize will likely be of far greater value than many had anticipated just six months ago.