The Republican presidential candidate debate Wednesday night (Nov. 9) in Michigan, produced and carried by CNBC, was one of the most informative and crisp of the long series. Moderated by anchors John Harwood and Maria Bartiromo, and including other CNBC correspondents, the debate dealt solely with financial and economic issues.
The questioners knew their topics and the candidates came well prepared and for the most part performed professionally.
First, the winners and losers in the debate:
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared the most knowledgeable of the candidates, although Gingrich made a couple minor slips. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also exhibited grasp of the issues but took a graceless jab at Romney, a longtime adversary, which took the edge off his performance. Huntsman, in any case, is an extreme long shot for the nomination.
The biggest loser was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who made an historic gaffe — no doubt to be shown and reshown endlessly in the coming weeks — in which he declared forcefully that, if elected president, he immediately would abolish three federal agencies but, then, could not remember the third agency (it turned out to be the Department of Energy).
Businessman Herman Cain clung again to his 9-9-9 formulation but had trouble getting beyond formulaic answers. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum played their usual libertarian, Tea Party, and contrarian roles but did nothing to break beyond their limited bases in the electorate.
Gingrich has been gaining ground and attention in recent weeks as Perry and Cain have faltered. But he faltered a bit on his own Wednesday night. First, he clearly was surprised and taken aback when Harwood asked him about a large fee he had collected, in his out-of-office years, from Freddie Mac, which Gingrich has consistently criticized. Gingrich hesitated and then responded that he advised Freddie Mac to engage in less speculative lending but that his advice had been ignored. (Fact checkers will be at work on this one). Later, he was condescending toward Bartiromo when she asked him to summarize his views on an alternative health plan to Obamacare. Gingrich went into a long spiel about his knowledgeability concerning health issues and, then, stated that his time had run out and he would have to leave it at that. Bartiromo, however, persisted and told him to take all the time he needed. He gave a general response quite similar to that made by the other candidates, focusing on the need to rely more greatly on market mechanisms.
Not only did Huntsman fire a shot at Romney, suggesting that Romney was being demagogic about a response to China's financial-economic policies, but Romney took his own subtle shot at Gingrich. He stated that he had been married for many years to one woman and had pursued the same religion over a lifetime (in contrast to Gingrich, who has changed both wives and religions over time).
Cain fielded an early question about his alleged sexual harassment of women and responded that these were "unfounded accusations." Harwood then attempted to draw Romney into comments on the allegations against Cain. But Romney said it was up to Cain to address them. The matter was not pursued further during the nearly two-hour program. The audience applauded both Cain and Romney for their answers.
The candidates are now only eight weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire and South Carolina contests will follow quickly thereafter. The continuing nationally televised debates will enable the long-shot candidates to remain in the race until then — unless forced to withdraw because of mishap, scandal, or total lack of campaign money. But the field will shorten quickly thereafter.
Cain has been wounded by the sexual-harassment allegations against him. Thus far he has responded with a total-denial, they-never-happened posture. He also has begun to demonstrate, in the debates and in interviews, that he has limited knowledge of foreign policy issues and a couple times has stumbled in trying to explain his own 9-9-9 plan. I expect him to be gone before Iowa.
Perry has campaigned badly and also shown himself ignorant when he tries to go beyond familiar Texas issues and experiences. He will have enough money to last awhlle in the nominating campaign but a couple of weak early showings could cause him to withdraw early in 2012.
Paul, Bachmann, and Santorum have limited bases in the GOP electorate. Huntsman's potential base among moderate voters already has been pre-empted by Romney. Romney thus remains the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
The GOP aspirants, this time around, directed less fire against each other than in the last two debates. All clearly are becoming more comfortable in their answers to difficult questions and have been forced to do their homework prior to the debates.
The debates thus are helping Romney (or whoever else the GOP might nominate) sharpen his game prior to facing President Barack Obama in 2012 debates. Then-Sen. John Kennedy was asked, before his famous 1960 debates against Vice President Richard Nixon, if he felt nervous about facing such a formidable and experienced opponent as Nixon. "Not at all," JFK responded. "I had to debate Hubert Humphrey in the Democratic primaries and he is a tougher debate adversary than Nixon anytime." JFK, of course, went on to win his debates with Nixon and then the presidency
Romney is more moderate politically than his GOP adversaries and, if nominated, his debates with Obama would likely draw less sharp differences with the incumbent president than more conservative Republicans would wish. But the two men nonetheless proceed from differing views of governance and we could expect intelligent, illuminating TV confrontations between them. The kinds of debates, in fact, which might generate a huge viewing audience.