Here are a few immediate thoughts from the debate last night at Drake University in Des Moines.
The debate began with Diane Sawyer once again commenting on the “seriousness” of Iowa voters. Also of note is that four of the five men wore red ties, while Mitt Romney wore a blue tie. Michele Bachmann also went with blue in her attire.
The first 45 minutes of the debate were probably the most substantive. Candidates traded exchanges on the tax code, the payroll tax cut, the importance of reducing government spending, cutting taxes, and eliminating regulations. In fact the majority of this time was used by Paul, Bachmann, and Perry to continually highlight Romney’s and Gingrich’s past support for individual mandates on healthcare.
Going into the debate most pundits expected Mitt Romney to go on the attack against Newt Gingrich as a way to distinguish his campaign and cut into Newt’s lead in the polls. For most of the debate, however, Romney was reluctant in this regard. George Stephanopoulos did push Romney at one point to outline his differences with Gingrich, but this resulted in a brief list of policy stances rather than a real challenge.
The only direct affront to Gingrich’s tendency to misspeak came on the issue of Palestine, and Gingrich’s recent statement that the Palestinian people are “invented.” After some back and forth between the two candidates, Romney finally did say that as president he would exercise more “sobriety, care, and stability” when dealing with other nations. The problem for potential Romney supporters is that this occurred 68 minutes into the debate and on an issue that may not be of most concern to Iowa voters.
Romney may also face some backlash for challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet on whether his book explicitly states his support for a federal individual mandate on healthcare. While perhaps entertaining, the amount of the bet will certainly feed the perception that Romney is an elitist unable to understand the interests of ordinary Americans.
On the question of the last time the candidate faced financial strain, Romney commented: “I didn’t grow up poor. And if somebody is looking for someone who grew up with that background, it isn’t me.” While noteworthy for the truthfulness of the statement, combined with the “bet” comment, it may cause some to question Romney’s ability to relate to the needs of low and middle income voters.
Romney was generally strong and articulate throughout most of the debate. In fact, in his first answer he proceeded to outline 7 policy changes need to effectively reform the tax code. While this may have been a shot at Perry’s inability to count to three, it was quite impressive in detail and depth. Ultimately, however, his unwillingness to directly confront Gingrich’s past statements, as well as “bet” comment, will not help in attracting undecided caucus-goers.
Michele Bachmann most likely turned some heads when she launched into a litany of policy stances that began, “If you look at ‘Newt Romney…” Bachmann was also the only candidate to mention Herman Cain, using his “9-9-9” policy as a framework for her new “win-win-win” strategy.
Rick Santorum and Rick Perry were able to hold their own, with Rick Perry even calling out Governor Branstad and Congressman Steve King at various points the debate. Santorum was the candidate most likely lost in the shuffle, while Perry added nothing new, continuing his assault on Romney for supporting individual mandates.
In the end, Romney and Paul were the two candidates who consistently challenged Newt Gingrich, though not as often as predicted. And Gingrich, for his part, did quite well and was able to hold his own against all attacks, even on the question of whether marital infidelity is a character flaw worthy of disqualifying a candidate.
Next stop—Sioux City!