Jan 2012: Why presidential debates matter

This was first posted today at Construction.

Do presidential debates matter? I would have argued “no” eight days ago. But in the past week, I’ve witnessed two debates that undoubtedly decided the winner of a state primary.

Last Thursday, Newt Gingrich won the debate and, two days later, the South Carolina Primary. Last night, Mitt Romney won the debate and now, barring revelations of a “celestial marriage” to multiple Mormon wives, will win the Florida primary on Tuesday. He went into the debate with a marginal 36 – 34 percent lead over Newt Gingrich. This morning, he’s polling a 38 – 29 percent lead, according to Quinnipiac University.

What did Mitt say and do to pull ahead? The answer to that, my friends, is in the following play-by-play commentary of last night’s GOP presidential debate from my live blog with fellow Wing Nuts columnist Ian Cheney at his website, Presidential Politics for America.

Stephen Kurczy (7:49 pm): It’s an honor for me to share the blog-o-stage with Ian for the 19th GOP debate of the 2012 presidential race and the final debate before the Florida primary on Tuesday. The GOP field has dwindled to four, after about eight other candidates “oops-ed” themselves out of the race. Last week, Newt Gingrich’s first comments were enough to win the night. Can he do it again? Or will Mitt Romney come out swinging? Can Rick Santorum turn this into a three-man race? Or will he be relegated to the Never Land of Ron Paul?

Ian Cheney (7:52): Great questions, Steve. Big picture, we’re looking for similar things. I was taking a look at the current Florida polls from RCP. It looks like Romney re-established a lead, even if it’s a lot slimmer than it was two weeks ago. Tonight, Gingrich MUST stop that growing gap. If Romney wins Florida and takes a large delegate lead (remember that Florida is winner-take-all), the primary might effectively be over.

SK (7:55): What does Santorum need to do to edge back into this race?

IC (7:58): I don’t think its even possible. Santorum’s Florida numbers fell after Iowa, and this is with three other candidates—two of which were his main conservative competitors—dropping out. If he finishes a distant third in Florida, he’ll likely drop out. Then the question remains: to whom, if anyone, does he throw his support?

IC (8:00): Here we go! Cue the CNN movie trailer music.

SK (8:01): Wolf Blitzer is moderating. Such a blow-hard! Guy drives me crazy.

IC (8:03): Wolf! Does he bring anything to these debates?

SK (8:04): I love watching these guys walk onto the stage. Ron Paul, quick little steps. Romney, slow and assured. Gingrich, waddling. Santorum, like he’s walking into your backyard for a barbeque!

IC (8:06): Romney and Santorum singing the anthem. Typical. Ron Paul: “Hey, Mitt, you know why they sing this song? So you don’t have to. PS. The Fed sucks.” Was Romney wearing the same suit in the previous debate footage as he is in the current one? This might explain why he has no friends.

SK (8:06): Only Mitt is wearing an American flag pin. All wear ties: Mitt’s is aqua blue. Newt’s is navy with red stripes. Santorum’s is blush red. Paul’s is striped red and maroon. When’s someone gunna embrace Steve Jobs black turtleneck motif?

SK (8:08): And what are these guys writing on their notepads? I think Mitt is playing hangman against his alter-ego. Not that he just has one.

IC (8:09): ZING!

SK (8:10): Ron Paul is the only person whose intro actually addresses some policy issues, aside from just saying that his mom and kids are in the audience. Leave it to Paul to be TOO sincere.

IC (8:11): First question is immigration. Santorum to kick things off? Weird. Tonight, I’m looking for how many times Santorum agrees/pulls his punches with Romney. I really think he’s shifting into VP mode. For Exhibit A, I bring you his very first response.

SK (8:13): Santorum says “we need immigration.” Going for those Latino votes. Gingrich takes harder stance, says “self-deportation will occur” if the proper penalties are put in place, except with the old Latino grandma’s. So . . . ? Romney’s answer is way too complicated. Paul says “you can’t deal with immigration unless you deal with the economy . . . Businesses need workers . . . I think we spend too much time worrying about the border on Afghanistan and Pakistan and we need to worry about our own borders.” [applause]

IC (8:15): If you guessed “15 Minutes In” in your “When does Ron Paul get his first question?” office pool, congratulations!

SK (8:19): Romney goes for jugular! Says to Gingrich,“The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive! It’s the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long!”

IC (8:22): Okay, I’ll say it. Mitt might have just taken his campaign back.

SK (8:24): Little action on Cuba now. Paul says, “I think it’s time we had friendship with Cuba.” Which is true, this ain’t the Cold War, people! Santorum disagrees, says Obama sided with Chavez and Castro when he didn’t support the Honduran coup. Pleeease.

IC (8:25): If you had 8:25 in your “When will they talk about Honduras?” office pool… congratulations!

IC (8:29): Whoa! Great, rare debate moment. Romney gets caught on an add he approved that he earlier claimed to have no clue about. They fact checked MID-DEBATE! How does this not happening more often?!

SK (8:31): I agree! CNN should have a team of fact-checkers analyzing every word these guys say.

IC (8:32): Same with FoxNews and MSNBC . . . assuming they have fact-checking departments.

IC (8:33): Romney going hard after Gingrich’s investments! I think he’s doing serious damage. This is NOT what Newt had in mind in his last Florida debate.

SK (8:34): That’s right Ian, Gingrich appears on the losing on almost every question. He just asked how many home foreclosures have enriched Romney. Romney replies that all his investments are “blind,” accuses Gingrich of investing in Fanny and Freddy, AND of lobbying for the two US home lenders. Gut-punch. (Luckily Gingrich has a big gut).

IC (8:35): Ron Paul bails out the leaders, marking the only time Ron Paul has ever been in favor of a bailout.

IC (8:36): Rick Santorum reaching for the “stop with the petty, personal bickering” vote, which I have to assume is sizeable these days.

Commercial Break #1

SK (8:37): Santorum took a swing at Romney before the first commercial break. But he’ll need to swing harder if he’s gunna break out of his rut.

IC (8:37): Agreed. It takes a lot more to cut the Russian.

End of Commerical #1

SK (8:42): Mitt is doing a great job this debate at addressing Newt’s criticisms. Newt looks petty.

IC (8:44): I couldn’t agree more. We’re coupling Newt’s worst debate with Romney’s best debate since Iowa.

IC (8:46): Rick Santorum: Vote for me, I only make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

SK (8:47): Little tax talk now. Santorum says, “What’s good enough for Reagan is good enough for me.” Wolf asks Paul if he agrees. Paul says Reagan’s taxes are still too high!

IC (8:48): Nice history lesson by Paul there. Historically, a transfer of wealth from the poor to the elite does precede a social collapse.

IC (8:49): Steve, you know you want Ron Paul as your grandfather.

SK (8:51): Both my grandpa’s are dead. Thanks, Ian.

*Chirp chirp. Chirp chirp.*

IC (8:53): Wolf wants to know about the candidates space goals. I like the idea of reviving space competition in a non-nationalistic way. If we get to Mars or beyond, I don’t want it tied to a country, but rather the entire race. Generally a good job by Newt there, until he closes with a chest thumping, “I want an American to get there before the Chinese.”

IC (8:54): Santorum’s idea to scale down the NASA budget is much more congruous to the conservative ideology. Romney and Gingrich are too busy out-promising each other to notice.

SK (8:56): Newt says Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000 prize, so let’s have a moon prize. All others disagree with this spacey idea. Romney says “I’m not looking for a colony on the moon.” Santorum says saving $$ is more important. Ron Paul makes most sense: “I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we should send some politicians up there.”

IC (8:56): Ron Paul breaking out the Old Man Zingers!

SK (8:57): Did Newt really just compare himself to JFK? That could haunt him.

IC (8:58): Speaking of haunting, does Mitt really want to say, “You’re fired” in a debate?

IC (9:00): Ron Paul calls out Gingrich on his “I balanced the budget” mantra. That’s unusual for Ron Paul to pick out one candidate. He usually prefers to lambaste the field. Gingrich is hurting tonight. I think Romney’s thinking about how to seat his delegates in August.

SK (9:02): Wow, what is this woman questioner wearing? Leopard-print dress and a fo-mynx scarf? No wonder she’s unemployed. I’d fire myself for wearing that.

IC (9:02): Dude.

SK (9:03): Dude, wear’s my leopard-print jumpsuit?

IC (9:04): The Republicans are rallying! And their battle cry? “President Obama ruined the country in two years.”

IC (9:06): Santorum keeping Michelle Bachman’s “Obamacare” and Rick Perry’s “Romneycare” spirits alive. I’m waiting for “trust deficit” and “9-9-9” so Santorum can consolidate all the failed candidacies into one.

IC (9:07): Santorum at his best is always when he reminds everyone that he actually is, historically, the truest Republican in the pack, and it’s a true Republican that should go up against President Obama.

IC (9:08): Romney once again defends his popularMassachusetts health care plan. Take a drink.

SK (9:10): I’m getting bored. Bring back Herman Cain.

IC (9:11): Okay, I temporarily take back Santorum’s run for Romney’s VP. He is relentlessly attacking Romney’s health care plan.

SK (9:15): “Let’s move on,” Wolf says. Santorum objects, “Mitt, your health care mandate is the same mandate as Obama’s mandate.” Wolf asks Ron Paul, “Who’s right?” Paul answers, “I think they’re all wrong.” Paul recalls the olden days when nobody was sick or needed government health care. Ah, grandpa. He lives in a Jimmy Stewart film.

IC (9:16): “Paul recalls the olden days when nobody was sick or needed government health care.” Classic.

Commercial Break #2

SK (9:18): Right before the break, a questioner asked about Marco Rubio’s prospects for the White House. All the candidates say they LOVE the Florida senator that was born to Cuban immigrants. All are hush-hush about Rubio’s drug-ties laid out in a recent New Yorker article.

IC (9:19): I, for one, can’t wait for vice-presidential politics. Maybe you should make a blog. Vice-Presidential Politics for America has a great ring to it.

SK (9:20): Ian, what question would you ask the candidates?

IC (9:21): “What do you think of Barack Obama’s effectiveness as President?”

End Commercial Break #3

IC (9:23): Wolf throws a softball with, “Why would your wife make a good First Lady?” I would have given a paycheck if Romney answered, “Which wife?”

SK (9:30): Paul says he’s been married for 53 years to a woman who had a lot of babies and wrote a cookbook. Romney says his wife can relate to cancer survivors and victims. Santorum says his wife knows the pain of a miscarriage. Gingrich says they all would be great first ladies, and Calista would be no better. On the couch tonight, Newt!

IC (9:32): I continue to question if “Reign of Terror” is an accurate characterization of Cuba. Do they know anything about the real Reign of Terror?

IC (9:33): Q: “What would you say to Raul Castro if he called the White House?” Ron Paul: “I would ask what he called about.” Classic Paul.

SK (9:35): Ron Paul on relations with Cuba: “The Cold War is over.” Didn’t I just say that?

IC (9:36): That you did, Kurz! And here I was still ducking under my desk.

IC (9:38): Tough Palestinian question from a Palestinian-American. Courageous question. My hat’s off. Candidates extend their standard wrapping of arms around Israel.

SK (9:41): You can read between the lines on the answers to that Palestinian-American’s question: A Jewish vote is more important than an Arab vote in Florida.

IC (9:42): Rick Santorum is not qualified to say “give a shout out.”

IC (9:48): Santorum says that the US is the only country whose government is tied to its religion. Apparently he’s overlooked every Muslim country.

SK (9:48): Oh boy, aside from Ron Paul, all the candidates say they’d consult “God” as president. I feel uncomfortable. What if God told Santorum to kill his son, a la Abraham and Isaac? Or if God told Romney to dig for the golden plates?!

IC (9:49): Or raise taxes on the wealthy.

SK (9:50): Gotta love Andy Borowitz’s tweets on the debate: Paul: “My only religious belief is that Ben Bernanke is Satan, and so I would kill him with my bare hands.” @BorowitzReport

Commercial Break #3

IC (9:52): And the last question is . . . “I want you to tell voters . . . why you are the ONE PERSON, on this stage, that is more likely to beat Barack Obama.”

IC (9:53): Ron Paul points to polling. Oh, now he likes polling.

IC (9:55): Romney caps a strong debate performance with a confident closer. He’s my prediction to win Florida right now (he wasn’t when I woke up today), and I think he can do it by 5-10 points. Gingrich did not get it done. He came with a 7-8 point deficit, and he leaves without making his mark, and this is even with a noisy crowd. There are no more debates for the Debate King. All that’s left is ads and commercials. Advantage Romney.

IC (9:59): Santorum returns to his bread and butter: I’m the only conservative mainstream Republican up here, and that’s what it takes to beat President Obama.

Debate over

SK: No question about it, Ian: Newt simply did not get it done tonight. The great debater, supposed the only candidate who can challenge Obama in a one-on-one, was thrown off balance by Mitt’s persistent attacks. Mitt wins, while Santorum remains the conservative alternative and Paul remains irrelevant. Again quoting Andy Borowitz, “Debate Winners/Losers WINNER: Barack Obama LOSER: Anyone who watched.”

IC: I disagree with Borowitz. Tonight’s winner was, without question, Mitt Romney, and Gingrich was its loser. Santorum did very well as the conservative alternative, but it’s too little too late. His only shot now lies with Gingrich withdrawing after Florida and throwing his full-throated support behind the former Pennsylvania Senator. Paul was tonight’s entertainment; what else is new?

As a fan of dramatic presidential politics, I loved Romney’s long-awaited assertiveness with Gingrich, and Gingrich at times seeming speechless as a crowd went against him for the first time. I think Romney just won Florida and built what might amount to an insurmountable delegate lead heading into a national campaign for which his campaign is built.

And now it’s time for Florida Primary Weekend! Check back in over the next few days to keep yourself abreast of the latest developments. Thanks for reading!

TIME’s Mark Halperin grades the debateMitt Romney: A … Rick Santorum: B- . . . Newt Gingrich: C- . . . Ron Paul: C-.

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