A one line summary of tonight’s debate: A lot of Obama bashing, followed by a lot of cheering.
It was a very different atmosphere tonight in Sioux City. The event took on the feel of a pep rally rather than a debate, and the candidates came out firing as though they were all on the same team about to take on their cross-town rival; in this case, President Barack Obama.
The initial positive tone made it difficult to discern differences between the candidates. For television viewers, the best way to do this was during commercial breaks by watching the constant stream of candidate ads.
For the first hour, the attacks between candidates were few and far between compared to the number of attacks directed at President Obama. On questions of electability, solving government gridlock, and combating “D.C. culture,” candidates largely ignored direct personal attacks on one another.
Mitt Romney appeared unwilling to attack Newt Gingrich, perhaps out of a concern to avoid alienating voters and preserve his current second place standing in the polls. In fact, on the issue of a recent bipartisan agreement on Medicare spending, Gingrich commented that Romney “deserves some of the credit,” which promoted moderator Neil Cavuto to ask, “Governor Romney, would you care to respond to that compliment?”
Coming into tonight, Bachmann seemed to be the candidate best poised to make some gains and potentially break into the top three. And in fact, the most interesting exchanges of the night came between Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann on the “lobbying” efforts of Gingrich on behalf of Freddie Mac, and between Bachmann and Ron Paul on how to respond to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The skirmish between Gingrich and Bachmann was largely a replay of last Saturday’s night debate, and Bachmann most likely did little to persuade doubters of Newt’s involvement.
On the issue of Iran, Bachmann produced a much more forceful response, including the statement that, “I never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one we just heard from Ron Paul.” For hawkish Republicans, Ron Paul’s more diplomatic responses on Iran, nuclear weapons, and the influence of Iran on Iraq, were probably less than appealing. Bachmann’s sharp criticism in this regard drew large cheers and may prove to be a separating point of distinction for third place on caucus night.
In the end, Newt Gingrich did little to cause serious harm. Gingrich’s surge has come from his debate performances and he will no doubt get a bump from his performance tonight. The question now is whether he can sustain that momentum for two and a half more weeks.
As expected, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were attacked when it came to issues of abortion and gay marriage. Interesting enough, Fox News chose Rick Santorum to follow up with Romney and Michele Bachmann to follow up with Gingrich on these issues; the two most vocal socially conservative candidates in the field.
The race still seems to be between Gingrich, Romney, and Paul, as well as Bachmann. Bachmann’s attacks on Gingrich tonight and last Saturday, and her attack on Paul’s perceived dovish responses on Iran were significant, and may allow her to move into the top tier. While Rick Perry did little to break into the top three, he did have the line of the night by saying, “I hope I’m the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.”
The debates have had a real effect on the race to the 2012 GOP nomination. Herman Cain was able to build momentum and jump to the head of the pack in state and national polls based primarily on his debate performances. The same has happened for Newt Gingrich. Of course, the debates have also had the opposite effect for Rick Perry. Although it remains to be seen, the Des Moines and Sioux City debates may be remembered for the subtle bump they gave to Michele Bachmann, if nothing else as a springboard to a third place finish on January 3.
Moving forward, it will be up to candidates’ ground games and their individual abilities to persuade a large bloc of still undecided caucus goers.
By the way, Jon Huntsman did appear to be wearing a purple tie and Newt Gingrich was the first to namedrop Congressman Steve King.