It was hard to peg the precise amplitude of Mitt Romney's smile at the third GOP presidential debate. While his opponents bickered with each other, he stood amused. Was it the grin the father of the bride keeps when the groom's mother gives a toast that goes on too long? Or was it the gentle fazed-out look of a parent at a kindergarten play?
The debate had the makings of a serious discussion about leadership, what form it should take, whether the candidates have demonstrated it, and how it should be applied in Washington. However, this discussion took place in a roller derby where that underlying theme was obscured by people trying to bruise and batter each other. Criticisms and veiled critiques broke out into the open among candidates desperate to avoid being eliminated from consideration. In the end, there was a lot of arm flailing. Everyone went round and round, and the lot of them wound up where they had stood before the debate began.
When nothing changes, that helps the front-runner, Romney. But Romney did more than coast and avoid getting drawn into any of the fights. When he spoke, he stayed focused on the economy and his experience in business as the only one who "actually worked in the real economy." People care about jobs, not the minutiae the other candidates were debating.
Usually on a fight card, the main event is held last, but Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Tim Pawlenty reversed that order. The Minnesota Melee was biggest and came first. Pawlenty argued that Bachmann boasts about leading fights in Washington but never wins those fights. "Leading and failing is not the objective," he said. "If that's your view of effective results, please stop. … You're killing us."
Bachmann responded that what voters want is a leader who doesn't bend and that her success should be measured by the strength of her stance, not by how much progress she makes. "I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress," Bachmann said. "That is what qualifies me, as a fighter and representative of the people, to go to Washington, D.C., and to the White House. People are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting."
To make her case for the perils of not standing firm, she used Pawlenty's record against him, noting his support for cap and trade, a cigarette tax, and support for an individual health care mandate. She argued that his record "sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me."
Children, children, Romney seemed to be saying with his smile as he looked on.
Bachmann boasted that she opposed lifting the debt ceiling at all and suggested the S&P downgrade was a vindication of her position. (Earlier in the day, S&P had actually said the opposite.) Sen. Rick Santorum chastised Bachmann, arguing that her brand of leadership was merely "showmanship" and wouldn't work in the real world.
Bachmann and Pawlenty went several rounds. The Fox moderators were tough and good throughout, but this was the moment when the thread was nearly lost completely. In a country where so many people think their elected leaders are out of touch with the grim state of their lives, the back and forth must have sounded like a debate over dessert toppings.
The two Minnesotans went after each other so hard because they have the most at stake in the straw-poll vote taking place among Republican activists on Saturday. Pawlenty's campaign is struggling. He needs to do well in the straw poll to keep donors writing checks. Iowa is a winnowing state. It doesn't pick presidents, but the caucuses narrow the field. A bad straw-poll showing can end a candidacy, too. If Pawlenty doesn't do well enough on Saturday, his campaign may die the way Lamar Alexander's did in 2000.