The Mitt Show
Romney's strong performance is helped by his opponents' reluctance to attack him.
Newt Gingrich likes American Idol. Tim Pawlenty is a Coke fan. And Mitt Romney, demeanor notwithstanding, likes it spicy. These tiny gleanings emerged at the first major Republican debate, when moderator John King asked whimsical this-or-that questions before the commercial breaks. The two-hour forum raised a few of those types of questions itself: Current field or Rick Perry? Obamneycare or Minnesota mumbles? Michele Bachmann or Sarah Who? Is it me or is it hot in here?
Scorecard analysis or thoughtful collection of paragraphs? Romney won the debate in that he didn't lose. There was nothing spicy about Romney (despite his answer), but he didn't hurt himself by seeming on all sides of the issue. Indeed, his explanation of the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts was one of his best yet. It was not likely to satisfy the National Review but likely to satisfy voters who want to get back to talking about the economy. When Romney's opponents were given a chance to wallop him on his flip-flops on abortion, no one took up the chance. "Case closed?" asked John King. "Case closed," said Herman Cain.
Reagan's 11th commandment was in effect: These Republicans did not speak ill of each other. Romney didn't take the opportunity to criticize any of his opponents, either. He was in general-election mode, criticizing President Obama and saying he looked forward to debating him. Romney even showed perhaps his most human moment on stage after he announced the Boston Bruins were up 4-0. He laughed to himself at his little bit of subversive mischief. (How did he know? An adviser said before the debate that they'd be watching the debate and the Bruins game on competing televisions.)
The entire gang competed to offer their vision of a country where Medicare, Social Security, and government regulations were pared back to unleash the private sector and trim the budget.
Twenty-three foster children or national bus tour? If you didn't watch the debate, Michele Bachmann will be by later to tell you she has taken in 23 foster children. She mentioned it three times during the debate. It makes two points: She's generous, and she puts her money where her mouth is. Candidates strive to introduce themselves in these debates, and Bachmann did the best job. She conveyed both a sense of personal conviction while also speaking to the issues Republican voters care about, such as repealing the health care law. She was also smart enough to announce her formal candidacy in her first answer, ensuring that she would be at the top of every story covering the event.
Her one-liners about making Obama a one-term president and the repeal of health care will get repeated in Republican circles. She will benefit not necessarily because people think she will be president, but because they want her out there advocating for the ideas they support about limited government. "I fought behind closed doors," she said of her opposition to the unpopular TARP. "Sometimes that's what you have to do, you have to take principle over party." She presented herself tonight as a more capable and plausible spokeswoman for Tea Party activists than Herman Cain or Sarah Palin. Bachmann's only devastating moment came when she was asked her this-or-that question—Johnny Cash or Elvis—and she said both. All right-thinking Americans know, of course, that the answer is Johnny Cash.
Is this gimmick getting old or should I press on? Pawlenty did not have a great night. In addition to introducing themselves to a wider audience, candidates need to impress the people they're going to be calling to ask for campaign donations. That's the audience he has to worry about, and they matter for the next 16 days—the amount of time left before the reporting period ends for this quarter. Romney will do very well. The other candidates, like Pawlenty, need to show that they did, too.
Boasting about a big fundraising number sends a signal that you are a viable candidate. And debates matter, because a common fundraising tactic is to call donors afterward and brag about your candidate's great performance or send around a clip of a pundit praising a big moment. It's ephemeral and sometimes silly, but it gets checks.