Republican Recap: Reflections on Current Field of Candidates

Going in to the GOP debate last week, the target was clearly on Texas Governor Rick Perry’s back. The latest candidate to enter the race, Perry has been outspoken on a number of issues, drawing praise and criticism wherever he goes and taking potential votes away from already-established candidates. The debate moderators spent more time trying to pit the other GOP candidates against Perry as they did trying to pit them against Obama. Perry clearly felt the heat, remarking that he felt like “The piñata at the party”. However he did not back down on his statements or positions, instead he went further, stating that ”maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country and say things like ‘let’s get America working again’ and do whatever it takes to make that happen”.

Instead of trying to capture the entire debate, I offer my personal snapshot of each of the candidates’ performances:

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
As previously mentioned, Perry was the one to watch to see if he lived up to the hype. Although he stumbled early, he regained ground when he was able to refer back to his record in Texas. On health care, Perry said he would repeal Obamacare, citing the government’s lack of flexibility in providing options for health care coverage and advocating for states to do what they feel is right when it comes to health care. On Social Security, Perry maintained his belief that the program has become a Ponzi scheme and that anyone who supports the status quo with Social Security today is “involved with a monstrous lie to our kids and it’s not right”. On foreign policy/defense, Perry was adamant ”Americans don’t want to see their young men and women going into foreign countries without a clear reason that American interests are at stake”. On climate change, the Governor stated that while Texas has done more to clean its air than any other state in the nation over the past decade, he doesn’t personally believe that unsettled/unproven science should drive legislation that puts our economy in jeopardy.

Toughest Challenge: His executive order that all young girls in Texas receive the Gardasil vaccination to protect against HPV, a leading cause/contributor to cervical cancer. Perry acknowledged that, given the chance, he would handle the Gardasil situation differently, while pointing out that there was always a parental opt-out in place. Ultimately, Perry said he made the decision to write the order because he hates cancer and was including the move in a larger $3 billion initiative designed to fight cancer by supporting cancer research over the next ten years.

Crowd-pleasing quote(s):
- “What Americans are looking for is someone who can get this country working again.”
- “In state of Texas if you come into our state and kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you are involved in another crime and kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed”. The moderators were mildly amazed that the Governor’s loudest applause of the night came on the death penalty issue, but Perry maintained that the American people understand and appreciate justice.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
Considered the leading candidate prior to Perry’s entrance into the race, Romney put forth a strong showing in the debate, leading many pundits to say he had held his top tier position. Once again Romney stated that his private sector experience makes him the best candidate for the job, pointing out that although “this President’s a nice guy, he doesn’t have a CLUE how to get this country working again”. As for Obamacare, the former Governor agreed with most of the other candidates that he would repeal the measure if elected, pointing out that the biggest hurdle he faced in Massachusetts was making sure that people who could afford to pay for their own health care did pay for it, instead of depending on the government to do so.

On the topic of energy, Romney lamented that we are ‘an energy rich nation living as an energy poor nation’, and he advocating putting far more of our country’s energy sources to use in order to stimulate the nation’s economy. On Social Security, Romney distinguished himself from Perry, calling it irresponsible to abolish the program because our seniors need it.

Toughest Challenge: When he was given an opportunity to attack Perry for his mandate on the Gardasil vaccine, Romney instead said that although he felt the executive order was wrong, he believed the Governor’s “heart was in the right place”. Many took Romney’s handling of this area as evidence that he lacks the guts/tenacity to be a leader, while others felt he took the high road in not attacking a fellow candidate.

Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- “If the Tea Party is for keeping government small and spending down and creating jobs, then I am for the Tea Party.”
- “I have a hard time with the idea that there are people who don’t feel like they are supporting the troops through our current tax vehicles. But I think everyone should feel like they are a part of contributing to our defense, our roads, and our schools.” This statement was made in response to the moderator pointing out that 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax and whether he would change that.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
The moderators were clearly trying to pit the candidates against each other, and Gingrich was having none of it in this debate. Not one to mince words, he offered the following when asked if he favored Romney’s health care plan over Perry’s: “I am frankly not interested in your efforts to get Republicans fighting each other. Obamacare is a disaster. It is a disaster procedurally, it was written badly, it can’t be implemented and it is killing this economy. If this president had any concern for working Americans, he’d walk in Thursday night asking us to repeal it because it is a monstrosity.” Like him or not, Gingrich always lets us know how he really feels about the issues.

Beyond health care, Gingrich tackled issues in education, pushing for a Pell Grant type of funding that would allow parents to choose which schools their children will attend, with the idea that competition would lead to better schools for everyone. On immigration, Gingrich supported a guest worker program, tighter borders, establishing English as the official language for business, and making sure that first generation immigrants learn American history as part of the requirement for becoming American citizens. However, he tied that last comment back in to education, stating that he also felt American children needed to learn more about American history, too. On the economy, Gingrich offered a three-prong plan to generate revenue without raising taxes. First, put Americans back to work. Next, open up energy production across the nation and get rid of restrictions on doing so. Finally, liberate a section of Alaska the size of Texas and allow exploration of minerals and the development of other resources in the region.

Toughest Challenge: Gingrich was pressed on the fact that he supported a form of amnesty legislation back when he was Speaker. He responded by saying that while the measures did include a form of amnesty, that amnesty was given in exchange for a guest worker program and border control that ultimately have not been carried out effectively.
Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- “This is a president so committed to class warfare and so committed to bureaucratic socialism that he can’t possibly be effective in jobs.”
- “I would fire Bernanke tomorrow. He has been the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered chair of the fed in the history of the Fed. He has been shifting money around with no accountability and no transparency.”

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann
Bachmann seems to have had the most to lose with Perry joining the race. He speaks to a lot of the Tea Party issues that have made Bachmann popular in key states, and many looked to see how she would perform in this debate. Unfortunately, Bachmann was not much of a presence in the debate, in part because the moderators did not ask much of her and in part because she did not offer much new information when asked, instead repeating well-worn sound bites. Like a few of the other candidates, she pushed for more development of American energy resources in order to stimulate our economy. On the Gardasil issue, she expressed that the best results regarding inoculation come when parents make the decisions and the worst come when the government makes the decisions. Regarding immigration, Bachmann held that narco-terrorists are a huge force in Mexico, and we need to firm up our borders to maintain national sovereignty.

Toughest Challenge: When asked if she stood by a previous statement supporting drilling in the Everglades, Bachmann sidestepped the issue. She answered that generally, she supported the exploration of American resources to stimulate the economy and that a political agenda was being advanced (re. environmental protection) versus a scientific agenda.

Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- “If we fail to repeal Obamacare in 2012 it will be with us forever and it will be socialized medicine. It must be gone now and as President I won’t rest until I repeal Obamacare.”

Photo courtesy of WEBN TV

Texas Congressman Ron Paul
Ron Paul gave a much more solid performance in this debate after coming across as a little unstable and unrealistic during last month’s debate in Ames. His basic platform was to promote a return to the principles set forth in the Constitution, to remove lot of the government entities and mandates that have sprung up in the past few decades, and to let states figure things out without the interference of the federal government. When asked how states would recover from the recent earthquake/hurricane/flood catastrophes without a federal organization like FEMA to intervene, he replied that they would handle things the same as they did in 1979 before FEMA was established, reminding us that people were able to take care of themselves–until the government starting telling them they couldn’t. He stated that FEMA basically just “conditioned people to build where they shouldn’t be building”.

When it came to tackling our immigration problems, Paul asserted that the war on drugs was driving our immigration problem and that although we could indeed seal off the border with a barbed wire fence and machine guns that is not what our country is all about. When it came to providing aid for those in need through food stamps or free school food programs, Paul felt that local governments could and should intervene to help those less fortunate, but that our federal government was never intended to run a welfare state.

Toughest Challenge: Paul is frequently knocked for his libertarian leanings, being painted as a man for whom ‘anything goes’. Despite being painted as an outsider for his disapproval of federal groups such as the TSA, FEMA, and Homeland Security, he continues to stand by the idea that the issues handled by these agencies could be handled more efficiently and effectively by strong local and/or private organizations without the use of federal monies.

Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- “Don’t always try to turn it around and say that we who believe in liberty lack compassion. Because we who believe in liberty and understand the market are the only ones who really understand how people are taken care of. How they are fed. And how people have jobs. It’s the market, it’s never the government.”

Photo courtesy of Bobbi Jo Rohrberg

Former CEO Herman Cain
Cain was not given a lot of opportunities to speak during this debate, but when he spoke, he made a lot of sense. I have said it before and I will say it again, this man should be running the Treasury. He could take over for Geithner tomorrow and I think we would all be better off. His private sector experience has given him the knowledge necessary to turn this economy around. He is not given the respect or the weight of many of the other candidates because he has a tendency to shoot from the hip and say things that are not politically correct in many circles. Even so, he has a strong mind for business and a natural flair for leadership.

Toughest Challenge: His weakness–which is oddly enough also his strength–is his stable of multi-pronged plans. While it indicates an organized approach to leading the country, moderators, fellow candidates, and audience members tend to heave a ‘here we go again’ sigh whenever he begins an answer with the phrase “I have a plan for that.” One of the plans he discussed at the Reagan Debate was the 9/9/9 plan: Throw out the current tax code. Put in a 9% tax on corporate income, a 9% tax on personal income, and a 9% national sales tax.

Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- Regarding the 9/9/9 plan: “If 10% is good enough for God, 9% should be good enough for the federal government.”
- “Government needs to get out the business of picking winners and losers…and level the playing field for all businesses.”
- “The President does not understand that the business sector is the engine for economic growth.”

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Former Senator Rick Santorum
Santorum, like Cain, had fewer opportunities to speak than many of the other candidates on the stage during the Reagan Debate. When he was questioned, the questions often had a negative or accusatory tone. One of his first questions began as a statement that Santorum was, as a Catholic, obligated to help the poor; he was then asked how the poor would figure in to a Santorum presidency. He replied by citing his role in creating the Welfare Reform act during his time in the Senate, maintaining that government assistance must be transitional as opposed to creating dependency.

Later, Santorum was asked why he helped create the Dept. of Homeland Security if he supported smaller, local government leadership. Santorum maintained that the agencies tasked with protecting the country had been a ‘mess’ prior to creating the DHS, particularly in the area of information sharing. He stated that a primary goal of Homeland Security was to establish clearer lines of communication and to enable easier sharing of intelligence information.

Toughest Challenge: In this debate, as in others, Santorum’s Catholic faith was scrutinized. Many feel his faith and his strong conservative leanings make him a polarizing figure among the field of candidates and fear that he is “too far right” to be embraced as a viable option for President.
Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- On immigration–“We want people to come here like my grandfather and my father came here. They came because they wanted to be free law abiding citizens. We have to have program in place that says you are going to come here according to our rules.”

Photo courtesy of

Former Governor Jon Huntsman
Huntsman has been viewed by many as a superfluous candidate on the GOP stage, a second-rate Romney wannabe. It’s true he is also a Mormon, a former governor, a man with good hair and a nice tan. But the debates are a chance for him to express himself and step out of Romney’s shadow. He was given a handful of opportunities to shine during the debate, and he tried his best to interject himself into the mix, with differing results. While challenging Romneycare by saying that it was never appropriate for government at any level–federal or state–to force people to buy health insurance, he was solid. But when saying that he would work to improve US/Chinese relations by going and speaking “in Chinese itself” (I realize he has been an ambassador as well as a Governor but surely he has more to offer than foreign language skills), he came across as almost too earnest and eager to impress.

Toughest Challenge: As mentioned, distinguishing himself from Romney and making his own place in the field.

Crowd-pleasing Quote(s):
- “I would love to get everyone to sign a pledge to take no pledges. I pledge to my wife and to my country but beyond that I think it diminishes the political discussion.”
- “We have got to strengthen ourselves and I say we’ve got to bring those troops home.” One way to commemorate the ten year anniversary of 9-11 is to say it’s time to get our core fixed and do nation building right here at home.”

Assuming that no other candidates enter the race–and the window for that possibility is getting narrower every day–the field will likely narrow over the next few months. The media has developed an almost laser-like focus on Romney and Perry ever since Perry entered the mix; Santorum, Cain, and Huntsman have struggled to gain traction despite making solid cases for their own positions. Gingrich has the gravitas and experience, but some fear that supporting him would be going back in time instead of moving forward. Paul and Bachmann are dismissed as too far out on the fringe to be legitimate candidates, despite Paul’s talent for raising funds and Bachmann’s popularity with many in the Tea Party base. Personally, I look forward to the field narrowing so that debates can be a time to delve deeper into the issues with a few candidates, instead of trying to give everyone a few seconds to share ideas on one or two topics. Looking objectively at the feedback from polls, pundits, and the press, at this time Romney appears to be maintaining his position as the candidate on top of the field.