The Ames GOP Debate: Looking for a Leader

“Gingrich won the battle, but Romney won the war.” This was the summary political consultant Frank Luntz gave to Sean Hannity and Michael Barone Thursday night in the media spin room at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, following the GOP debate. Luntz went on to say that he could see Gingrich get the VP nod after his performance. Hannity concurred that “Gingrich had a strong showing”, while television producer Burt Sugarman interjected that Romney had a “soothing, fatherly” presence on the debate stage.

The picture I took while waiting to speak to Hannity. From left to right: Sugarman, Mary Hart, Luntz, Hannity.

Leading up to last night’s debate, the big story of the day had been former Massachusetts Governor Romney’s performance at the Iowa State Fair. Dubbed The Stormin’ Mormon by gateway pundits, Romney fired back when assailed by a liberal protester at his appearance earlier in the day. In response to the liberal protestor’s tirade, Romney replied firmly, “No, I won’t raise taxes.” He went on to say that if people are truly concerned about everyone ‘paying their fair share’ of taxes, we need to take a closer look at the high percentage of Americans who pay no taxes at all. Seeing Romney go on the offensive gave many conservatives hope that his long-missing backbone had finally been located, and there was in interest in seeing whether he would continue to be outspoken in the debate. Romney gave the people what they were looking for, starting off the evening by calling Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling crisis “the exact opposite of what we needed for economic success”, going on to say that he would not “eat Obama’s dog food” by supporting what he considered to be the President’s failed policies.

Romney capitalized on his earlier boost by focusing on his strong suit, the economy. He stated repeatedly that he and fellow candidate Herman Cain were the only ones in the race who had actually worked ‘in the economy’, and that the President’s efforts regarding the economy had failed because he had no real life experience working in the economic arena. Romney supported the premise of cut, cap and balance, and asserted that America needs to get its corporate tax rates in line with those of other prominent world nations. Regarding immigration, Romney focused on the business aspect, saying that America should encourage the legal immigration of immigrants who have skills to offer our economy, and maintaining the swift and strong crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Touting his record as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney reminded the viewers that the credit rating in his state actually went up under his leadership, and that he left the state with a $2 billion surplus which he called a “rainy day fund”. Summing up his position, Romney said that he was the leader on the economy and that he had the kind of leadership that was currently lacking in the White House. Delivering one of his best sound bites of the night, Romney quipped, “In order to create jobs, you have to have had a job.”

Beyond the buzz over Romney, the rift between Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was of interest to debate watchers. In recent weeks T-Paw, as he is called, had become increasingly critical of his fellow Minnesotan, and viewers were curious to see how that would play out on the debate stage. They got their answer almost immediately. Although moderator Brett Baier opened the debate by asking the candidates to “put aside the talking points” and rise above pettiness, fellow moderator Chris Wallace challenged T-Paw with his first question. Wallace began by saying that the rift had tainted the two candidates’ “Minnesota nice” reputations, and asked Pawlenty (re. Bachmann), “Is she unqualified, or is she just beating you in the polls?” Pawlenty replied that Bachmann had done nothing in Congress and thus was running on a non-existent record.

Bachmann held her ground against T-Paw’s badgering, firing back with her own assessment of his performance in office: “You called for requiring all people in our state to purchase government mandated insurance. You said the era of small government was over. Sounds like Barack Obama to me.” Ouch. When pressed to answer why she voted for then-Governor Pawlenty’s cigarette tax increase, she maintained that he forced legislators into that position. According to Bachmann, Pawlenty tied the cigarette tax legislation to legislation regarding the sanctity of life. The Congresswoman said that voting against the bill would have been voting against the sanctity of life, so when it came time to choose, she chose to support life even though it meant raising taxes. Bristling, T-Paw shot back that Bachmann didn’t vote to protect life, she voted to generate revenue. At that point Bachmann replied firmly that she does not support special interest groups, she votes her values, and she values human life. When pressed on the issue of the cigarette tax, Pawlenty faltered, responding, “I don’t support raising taxes. I agreed to the cigarette fee, I regret that, but it did increase revenues. Later I saw our surplus was so high we didn’t even need it.” Round One goes to Bachmann.

After putting Pawlenty in his place, Bachmann went on to field a variety of questions throughout the evening. Perhaps her most-discussed Bachmann question of the night was when she was asked if she would submit to her husband if she became President. I realize that the Congresswoman previously mentioned submitting to her husband in regards to making major life decisions; however, I found the question in poor taste. None of the moderators asked the Mormon candidates on stage if they would ask their temple leaders for guidance in the office and none asked the Roman Catholic candidates if they would run their decisions by the Pope. Did they really have to ask the one female candidate about her husband? To her credit, Bachmann was unruffled. She replied that in her faith, submission meant mutual respect and support between a husband and wife. She went on to say she was proud of the fact that she had a loving, decades-long marriage that produced five children and welcomed twenty-three foster children. Speaking of marriage, Bachmann shared, “I support the Federal Marriage Amendment and I was chief author of a Minnesota constitutional amendment to promote one man, one woman marriage”.

Speaking on the economy Bachmann held to her position that we should not have raised the debt ceiling, and that we could have balanced our budget and solved the problem without defaulting. She called the deal that gave the administration $2.3 trillion in new spending, offset by a mere $21 billion in cuts “madness”, stipulating that continued borrowing and “spending money we don’t have” is the wrong way to go. As for state-mandated health care plans (like Romneycare), Bachmann voiced her opposition firmly. She maintained that this approach was disastrous because it allows the state to set the price, and worried,” If the state can force its citizens to buy health insurance, there is nothing that the state cannot do to them”. On fellow candidate Congressman Ron Paul’s assertion that we should give suspected terrorists Miranda rights, Bachmann held that these individuals were not citizens of our country and thus they should not be given the same level of protection. She went on to say that allowing our country to question suspected terrorists gave us some of the key information that ultimately led us to finding Osama Bin Laden.

Tim Pawlenty engaged with many of the candidates on the stage, not limiting himself to his squabble with Bachmann. When asked about the economy, T-Paw replied “My plan is the most specific, comprehensive plan of any of the candidates on this stage. Where are Obama’s plans?”   Pawlenty then posed a challenge to the audience: “If you can find any of Barack Obama's plans to deal with these things, I will come to your house and cook you dinner.” Showing that his snark was not limited to his rival Bachmann, he went on to say that in lieu of dinner, he would mow your lawn–but, he warned Romney, he would only mow one acre. Apparently class warfare is not sole property of the left.

One area where Pawlenty garnered a lot of attention was his stance on foreign policy. Asked how he would handle the tensions in the Middle East, Pawlenty blasted President Obama for his actions while sharing how he would be different. T-Paw asserted that the leader of Syria is taking “every opportunity to mow down his own citizens” and “Obama refuses to tell him to go”. Perhaps his most widely repeated statement of the debate came in regard to Israel. Pawlenty accused the President of repeatedly sticking his thumb in Israel’s eye and voiced that he felt the United States should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Israeli nation and its people. This was perhaps his strongest moment of the night.

My photo of Cain post-debate.

Despite the fireworks between Pawlenty and Bachmann and the buzz surrounding a stronger Romney, businessman Herman Cain emerged as the man to watch. Every time Cain was given a question he replied with warmth, sincerity, and a flair for capturing his ideas in concise statements. Many of the media in the spin room were posting his comments in real time on Twitter, and getting positive feedback. Regarding what Baier called his ‘questionable statements’ regarding Muslims holding positions in his Cabinet, Cain replied, “I have gone on record saying if anyone misunderstood my intent, I apologize. But I won’t ever apologize for saying Shariah law does not belong in the courts of the United States of America.” His words were met with resounding applause by the audience, and by murmurs of approval in the spin room.   Cain was asked if he was serious when he responded to President Obama’s mocking assertion that conservatives wanted the border protected with alligator-filled moats by saying he would go even further than that. His reply? “America needs to learn how to take a joke. America has a path to citizenship. It’s called Legal Immigration. America can be a nation with high fences and wide open doors.” With that, Cain summed up his entire argument on immigration in three sentences.

Once he got past defending previous statements, Cain was able to share more of his thoughts.   Regarding the economy, Cain stated that tax cuts should be made permanent in order for businesses to “put the fuel in the engine of this economy”. Later in the evening he proposed lowering the top corporate and personal tax rate to 25% and dropping capital gains to zero. Cain said we needed to “make that permanent. Uncertainty is killing our economy. Give those people back their dividends. It’s their money. Let them spend it.” This last statement was again met with thunderous approval by those in attendance.

Described as the top performer of the evening by many pundits, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gave off an air of confidence mixed with condescension, much like a wizened father shaking his head at the antics of his naïve children. Chastising the moderators for their use of ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Gotcha’ questions, he came out guns blazing, calling the recently established Congressional Super Committee “the stupidest idea I have ever heard of. It’s irrational. They are going to come in right before Thanksgiving and say, “’Ok we can shoot you in the head or cut off your leg. What’s it gonna be?’” When it came to questions about the Middle East, Gingrich blasted moderator Wallace for taking his words out of context before saying that we needed to reevaluate “everything” in terms of how we are handling relations in that part of the world. When he wasn’t sparring with the moderators, Gingrich was reminding the audience of the accomplishments he achieved as Speaker of the House in the 1990s, pointing out time and again that he had been there, done that when it came to revitalizing our economy.

The Spin Room

If Gingrich was the crusty father figure, Congressman Paul filled the role of the “crazy uncle at the Thanksgiving table”, as he was described by a Daily Caller reporter seated near me in the spin room. His platform on national defense could be summed up as “Give Peace a Chance” mixed with “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” In contrast to the majority of the candidates, Paul supported the idea of Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons, pointing out that all of the surrounding nations had them, so it “wasn’t fair” for Iran to be denied the same opportunity. Advocating bringing our troops home immediately, he went on to say that we “need to get out of these 40 year old wars and mind our own business”. On economic issues, Paul stated that our country is bankrupt but nobody wanted to admit it, saying “We have to restore sound money.” However, when the moderators followed up that statement by question how he would get sound legislation through a divided Congress, Paul was speechless. A nervous ripple of laughter passed through the spin room during the silence.

When it came to the issue of gay marriage, Paul was challenged on his position that marriage rights should be left up to the states. Following up on a statement made by fellow candidate Rick Santorum, the panel asked Paul if he felt that giving states power over this issue would open the nation up to states supporting polygamy. Paul dismissed the assertion as “not even a serious consideration”, saying that states implementing polygamy is no more realistic than states reinstating slavery. Paul closed out his time at the debate by saying that he fundamentally believed in “liberty that comes not from our country but from our Creator”.

Speaking of Rick Santorum, the candidate and former Senator was referred to by a media pundit as the “Scrappy Doo” of the night, running around following the big dogs and nipping at their heels, an unfortunate–although accurate–depiction. Santorum started the night by chastising Congresswoman Bachmann for refusing to capitulate during debt ceiling negotiations, telling her “You can stand firm but you can’t say ‘Give me everything I want or the answer is No.’” He went on to say that everyone has to compromise on some points in order to get things done and avoid gridlock. Taking the sensationalism position, Santorum called Romneycare the “Tenth Amendment run amok”. He voiced concerns that giving states too much latitude could have dangerous implications: “So if the states want to pass polygamy that’s ok. If they want to pass forced sterilization that’s ok. No, that’s wrong. States don’t have the right to trample over moral obligations under the guise of the tenth amendment.”

Later in the evening Santorum was asked to defend his position that abortion providers should be prosecuted. Santorum pointed out that legislation was recently enacted that prevented rapists from being put to death, and said that he felt it inconsistent to say that a convicted rapist could not be killed for his actions, but that the baby created as a result of his actions–the innocent victim–could be killed. Although Santorum may have come across as pushy to some, he was placed in a position where he had to inject himself into the conversation. The moderators admitted on more than one occasion that he wasn’t getting as many questions as the other candidates. In addition, Santorum was immediately cut off whenever he came up against the time limit on his responses, while other candidates–particularly Ron Paul–were allowed to expound on their responses and were often given follow up questions.

Utah Governor John Huntsman rounded out the field of candidates in attendance at the debate. His platform was summed up in his statement, “Look at what I did as Governor, that is exactly what I’m gonna do as President.” Huntsman said on more than one occasion that the current President lacked leadership skills, and that he would bring those skills to the White House. Chided for a history of serving on Obama-appointed teams and supporting Democratic legislation, Huntsman was asked if he was running as a candidate for the wrong party. Huntsman coolly replied that he was running on his record and he was proud of his record. When moderators pointed out that his record included support of civil unions for gay couples, Huntsman replied that he was “proud of [his] marriage” but supported civil unions because he felt our country “could do a better job when it comes to equality”. As for the economy, Huntsman said that in order to restore the “core of America”, our nation needed to start making things again. To that end, he proposed eliminating the EPA’s “reign of terror” and overhauling the entire federal tax code. Huntsman closed with his best line of the night: “This nation is hurting, it is scared, and it is bankrupt. We have a cancer growing in this country called debt, and we need to eliminate it.”

Brett Baier opened the debate by asking the candidates how they would navigate America though this difficult time, following the sharp drop in the economy and the painful loss of the lives of American troops this week. The consensus of many in the spin room was that Romney and Gingrich came off as most “Presidential”, but that Cain would be a dynamic Secretary of the Treasury and Bachmann also showed promise as a leader. Pawlenty, Huntsman and Santorum were deigned too far back to be contenders. Paul was given his usual place as the unconventional candidate too far outside the mainstream to be a likely Presidential nominee. At this point the race is too close to call, and the field is about to expand, with Texas Governor Rick Perry throwing his cowboy hat in the ring and former Governor Sarah Palin passing through Iowa this weekend. Ultimately, conservatives are hungry for strong leadership, and all eyes are on Iowa for this weekend’s Straw Poll in hopes that one of the top dogs will emerge an Alpha wolf, ready to lead the charge toward the 2012 Presidency.