Experts agree! Monday's Republican presidential debate yielded two clear winners: Mitt Romney, the current front-runner who won by not losing, thanks to kid glove treatment from his fellow GOP participants. And Michele Bachmann who, while not surprising those of us who have met her and heard her speak, came across as energetic, intelligent, and aggressive (all of which she is.) She made a solid first impression on those who knew little of her prior to the event.
Tim Pawlenty's performance was workmanlike but disappointing in energy and charisma. As Jim Antle correctly noted, Pawlenty's refusal to back up his memorable "Obamneycare" talking point means he should not have made it in the first place. The other participants did as anticipated, with Newt Gingrich perhaps exceeding expectations and Herman Cain a slight disappointment. Ron Paul was Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum was Rick Santorum. Nary a surprise from either.
Betting odds seem to agree with the talking heads' take: Romney's odds of getting the nomination as determined by betting on intrade.com have jumped from 29.5% to 31.5% overnight, his highest odds of the year. Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty has been drifting lower following a brief boost after Mitch Daniels' exit from contention, with a major drop from about 18% to about 15% following the debate. Bachmann's chance of being the nominee moved from 5% to just over 6%, not a huge move but a new high for her. Betting odds among the other participants were little changed. In other words, Pawlenty lost 3 points, of which two went to Romney and one to Bachmann, much in line with how judges would have scored the debate itself.
In the social media realm, Yahoo! reports that "Romney gained the most number of new 'likes' on his Facebook page and has the most 'likes' overall at nearly one million. Michele Bachmann finished with the second most 'likes' and totaled nearly 300,000 overall." The report also mentions that Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty's web search and Facebook statistics "remained flat."
Two people who were not on the stage in New Hampshire are in third and fourth place in the betting odds, and not even declared candidates yet: former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and current Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry seems to gain about a half a percent each day in the odds and is now trading around 13% to get the nomination according to intrade.com betting participants. Huntsman's odds are about the same as Perry's at this point, something that still surprises me as I think Huntsman's chances of getting the nomination are probably half of his current betting odds. (In fact, I did "go short" Huntsman a few days ago at 17%.)
There were surprisingly few direct attacks on President Obama. Mitt Romney got in a jab at the end of the evening when he said, "Anyone of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama." And in her usual take-no-prisoners style, Michele Bachmann proclaimed -- in addition to making her first public statement that she is officially a candidate -- that "[Obama's] report card right now has a big failing grade on it…I want to announce tonight: President Obama is a one-term president."
It bears repeating how few attacks there were on Mitt Romney by the rest of the GOP field. The entire panel was asked by John King whether Romney's current pro-life view (he ran for governor of Massachusetts as pro-choice, then for president in 2008 as pro-life) was still a campaign issue or if it is "case closed." Herman Cain said "case closed" and everyone else was silent. King has done Romney a huge favor.
In addition to not going after Mitt Romney, the candidates were routinely complimentary of each other. Frequently during the debate a candidate would preface his or her answer by referencing a competitor's prior answer in a complimentary way. For example, when asked about Tim Pawlenty's economic plan, Mitt Romney said "the ideas Tim described, those are in the right wheelhouse."
The kid gloves nature of Monday's debate suggests a realization among Republican candidates: the mission for the 2012 election is to beat Barack Obama, period. In the game of politics in which we've come to expect Republican circular firing squads, these candidates had their fingers off those triggers. This reflects the results of a fascinating new Gallup poll which shows that 50% of Republicans want to see the party's nominee be the person with the best chance of beating Obama, versus 44% saying they want the nominee to be someone "who agrees with [them] on almost all issues."
It's the poll internals that are particularly interesting: Men care more about beating Obama than about agreement on the issues by an enormous 16% margin, whereas by a six point margin women focus on the issues rather than on victory. Furthermore, conservative Republicans care more about winning whereas "liberal/moderate" Republicans care more about policy agreement Given the intensity of conservatives in the various primary and caucus processes, this poll bodes very well for Mitt Romney who seems quite electable but has issues-related hurdles from health care to ethanol to climate change.
When I talk to Republican activist friends, the line I hear most often -- including from me -- is "I really want to like Mitt Romney." It's a reflection of our understanding that Barack Obama must fulfill Michele Bachmann's prediction as a one-term president if this country is to regain its economic footing, restore a wide range of liberties to our citizens, and no longer be perceived as weak in international relations.
Romney's approval of an individual mandate, even if only at the state level is troubling. Adding in his recent support for ethanol subsidies and his credulousness regarding human impact on "global warming" and it's not surprising that one might wonder if Mitt is this generation's Nelson Rockefeller.
My take: Just as Barack Obama is not governing to the center the way he suggested he would during the 2008 campaign, neither would Mitt Romney if elected. Yes, it's a big bet to make, but we know what we get if we get four more years of this; options in politics are rarely optimal. I don't mind that Romney says he doesn't think of himself as highly partisan. I want to know if he's highly principled. And, like much of the rest of America, I want to know if he can beat Barack Obama.
Clearly there are risks of getting bad policy if a Rockefeller Republican wins the White House, but they're less than the 100% certainty of bad policy if this Democrat does. And while this is quite different from the argument I made in 2008 when I suggested that a McCain presidency would just be a little more "boiling the frog," at this point I think America has learned its lesson about what "Progressivism" really is and who "Progressives" really are.
In Atlas Shrugged style, it's time for the pro-liberty and pro-capitalism leaders of society, including those few politicians who fit that mold, to return and make a stand for our Republic. Romney's performance on Monday in New Hampshire didn't prove he's that guy, but it surely didn't hurt his case either. I still want to like Mitt Romney.
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