Slate political correspondents John Dickerson and David Weigel were on our Facebook page to chat with readers about last night's GOP presidential debate, the 2012 election, and the overall political landscape. Also, look out for a special cameo by Slate Editor David Plotz. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Dave Weigel: Thanks for coming, everyone! Let's get going. My wrap on the debate was here.
John Dickerson: By the way, it's Flag Day. I hope everyone is wearing their flag.
Adam Francois Watkins: So why did T-Paw seem to back off his clever "Obamneycare" quip?
John Dickerson: Adam, I don't know why he backed off other than it is not uncommon (double negative!) for candidates to punch outside of the debate context and then when they're on stage look pleasing and upbeat. Most of the audience watching debates are seeing candidates for the first time (or at least looking at them as presidential for the first time) and so candidates don't want to come off as harsh. Still, even if Pawlenty didn't want to press the case he should have had a better answer prepared.
Dave Weigel: Adam – My impression is that Pawlenty just doesn't like to attack. Santorum can hardly live without it—he defines himself by what he believes and judges others based on what they believe. Pawlenty's generally go-along, get-along, and it was clear on the trail here that he did not want to attack Romney. How do you break out as a dark horse without attacking? Um, good question!
John Dickerson: Per David's good point. I was a little surprised that Santorum didn't take the chance he was given to go after Romney. Again, I think it's because they all want to look pleasing in that context.
Brian Foley: How long until Newt drops out?
John Dickerson: Brian, I bet Newt stays in. He may not have a chance to win but he can spread his ideas and fix his image, which has taken a pounding.
Dave Weigel: Let's see how fundraising looks in three weeks. The chattering class (i.e., all the folks in the media gym last night) expect him to pull in really paltry numbers, because as far as we know he didn't even have the money to compete in the Ames straw poll. That would be around $500,000, or 1/20 of what Romney hauled (in pledges) in one day.
Letitia Trent: (This question is really long—sorry!) The Republican candidates, when asked about job creation and economic recovery, all seemed to emphasize lower taxes (particularly cutting corporate taxes), ending oppressive government oversight, and repealing Obama's health care plan. Do you see this as a satisfying answer to Americans (or an effective response to the problems), or do Republicans have to come up with more concrete responses to these two important questions to be viable for the general election?
John Dickerson: Letitia, I think if people are as angry about the economy as they appear to be, the bar can be pretty low for a candidate. BUT if Democrats successfully define the GOP economic message as the destruction of Medicare and other popular programs, then a candidate has to get out from under that. The way to do that would be by being more specific, which is tricky because specificity winds up offending someone.
Eduardo Barrera Herrera: Is there any other candidate with a chance to get the Tea Party's support besides Bachmann?
Dave Weigel: The "Tea Party" is hard to define, but I'd caution against being impressed by any one endorsement by one group. (I'm on a lonely crusade to get reporters to stop jumping up and down when the powerless Tea Party Nation shoots a spitball.) Most TPers are partisan Republicans—convince them that you won't go against them and you can win a lot of their support.
Tonya Riley Who do you think came out of the debate looking the most moderate? Reactionary?
Brooke Bailey: As a follow up to Tonya's question: Do you think even the most moderate candidate could be moderate enough to beat Obama or will someone moderate enough have trouble keeping Tea Party voters.
Dave Weigel: Tonya and Brooke – I can answer both questions. I'd say Santorum and Bachmann came off as the most concerned with ideological purity, and Romney, Cain and Pawlenty the most concerned with results. Bachmann was all about what she'd repeal; Romney focused more on Obama's competence. But that said, did you hear much of a difference in the policy prescriptions? I didn't. The agreement is generally that tax cuts and regulation rollbacks will lead us to the promised land.
Eric Anderson: Is Pawlenty trying to appeal to evangelical voters or economic conservatives? What divergence is there?
Dave Weigel: Pawlenty's trying to appeal to both but he and Bachmann *should* have an inside track to social conservatives. Both are competing for Iowa; Huntsman isn't, Romney is lowering expectations. That tells you what you need to know about how they think they can do with those voters.
John Dickerson: Eric, he's trying to go for both evangelicals and economic conservatives (and anyone else he can find). This is a bit of a problem. He's trying to be all things to all people, say those in NH and IA who have reservations about him.
Dave Weigel: Oh, second part of your question; not much divergence. Many social conservatives are primarily concerned with economic issues. And even if they're not their leadership groups are.
David Sawyer: Seems like Perry or Christie may just wait for the media narrative to become "none of these Republicans can beat Obama" and then will swoop in as the "surprise dark horse" who can "really go toe-to-toe with Obama" and "energize the base." It's a storyline the press would love and would surely give instant momentum to the newcomer. Also, don't you think Ryan or Boehner would be instant frontrunners if they decided to run?
John Dickerson: David, the media narrative is only so powerful. Late starting candidates face massive hurdles. It's not easy to campaign, as Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and lots and lots of others have discovered. Chris Christie and Rick Perry will have their best day the day before they announce. After that it's all a grim slog that they don't really want to participate in.
Robert Berry: I felt like they were already debating Obama. They had no attacks on each other but saved everything for what BO is doing wrong.
John Dickerson: That's usually the way it goes in the early debates. The gloves don't come off for a while—though the pressure to show you're a contender could push candidates to show a little spark earlier.
Teresa Kopec: I was surprised that John King didn't try to get everyone on the record regarding the Ryan Medicare plan. That seemed like an obvious question. As much King bashing as is going on on conservative websites today, that was a big assist to the GOP field.
John Dickerson: Teresa, good point. I think questioning about the Ryan plan and the tradeoffs is a fertile area of questioning. On John King: It's a hell of a thing to manage two hours of seven candidates, producers in your ear, lots of remotes, etc. He did a good job.
Dave Weigel: Are you serious? If he'd done that, we'd never have known that Pawlenty prefers Coke to Pepsi.