The first full-scale Republican presidential debate on Monday night helped clarify the lines of argument the GOP contenders intend to pursue against President Obama, but did little to illuminate the case they will make against each other. That’s not entirely surprising: primary candidates usually wait until more voters are tuned in before delivering their sharpest salvos against their rivals.
Yet the debate did offer some important previews of how the race may unfold. It suggests that on the big issues, there may be only modest differences between the proposals of the major candidates; all of them are operating in a policy framework shaped by the tea party push to retrench government, as interpreted above all by the House GOP budget resolution authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. On Monday, none of the candidates supported the auto bailout; none (not even Newt Gingrich) directly criticized Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare into a premium support, or voucher, system; all argued that the key to reviving the economy was to cut spending, taxes, and regulations.
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Eventually, the contest will demand that the candidates find contrasts; primaries always do. But Monday was an early signal that they are more likely to be differences of degree, not of kind. There is no battle pending for the soul of the Republican Party. “I’ve never thought there will be what the average voter considers big [issue] differences between the candidates and you saw that here tonight,” said former Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney adviser, after the debate.
With that convergence, Monday’s debate suggested the 2012 Republican presidential race is more likely to revolve around authenticity and electability than ideology. The key issue may be which candidate can be trusted to make the strongest case for the consensus that has already congealed in the party around an agenda that pushes the envelope in rolling back government. On Monday, the candidates showed little inclination to begin questioning each others’ conservative credentials; one of the most striking moments came when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty chose not to reprise the attacks he delivered on Fox News Sunday against Mitt Romney’s health care plan.
Romney and the others in turn chose not to criticize Pawlenty’s sharply questioned assertion that the U.S. could achieve sustained annual economic growth of five percent. The rivals aren’t likely to be so circumspect—especially toward front-runner Romney—by the time the snow begins to fly, but as they sought to introduce themselves to Republican voters, the GOP contenders pointedly chose to focus their fire on President Obama, not each other.
Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., may have delivered the most vibrant performances. But Romney did well by emerging unscarred; he was comfortable and confident, if not especially compelling. . (He also showed his home field advantage by ingratiatingly working in an update on the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup finals game against Vancouver.) Bachmann also signaled that she will attempt, as Mike Huckabee did in 2008, to connect with cultural conservatives as much on identity as policy grounds: She rarely let an answer pass without reminding her audience that she has reared five biological, and 23 foster, children. For all of the candidates on stage, tougher tests are yet to come.