The obvious winner of the Iowa GOP debate: Texas Governor Rick Perry, who gained significant ground on all his rivals because he displayed the good sense not to show up.
The losers? All eight candidates on stage, who clawed and snarled and divided attention eight ways, each looking smaller and less presidential in the process.
With Americans increasingly sour on Barack Obama, the Ames debate offered a precious chance to showcase refreshing, hopeful GOP alternatives. Instead most candidates seemed petty and petulant and full of bile—angry at the world in general and at their opponents, and, in the case of Newt Gingrich, full of righteous indignation at the moderators from Fox News.
In the June debate in New Hampshire, Michele Bachmann made a splash with her energetic, zesty, self-confident performance. This time she looked wary and slightly dazed, and seemed as if she wasn’t enjoying herself in the slightest—especially when Tim Pawlenty zinged her with the appropriate point that for all her talk about a “titanium spine,” the major fights she emphasizes in her campaign boasts (against TARP, Obamacare, the debt-ceiling deal) all proved to be losing battles.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable contender was new-kid-on-the-block Jon Huntsman, who badly fumbled several chances to differentiate himself from the field on issues of immigration and civil unions. Huntsman could have made firm, conservative arguments for his mainstream positions and come across as a straight-shooting Westerner who might disagree with some primary voters, but could still win their respect by courageously and clearly making his case. Instead, he punted and dodged, repeatedly (and irrelevantly) asking people to examine his record as Utah governor to prove his right-wing bona fides.
Mitt Romney looked bemused and relaxed with his polished, suave demeanor serving him well, as usual. As the widely perceived frontrunner he gains by avoiding stumbles (as he did) and by his superior mastery of television mechanics (finding the camera, listening earnestly and respectfully to each opponent).
The sad news for Republicans is that the two candidates who delivered the most impressive performances in terms of substance and forceful argument (Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich) are two candidates with no war chests, no campaign organization, and no real chance of winning anything of note in caucuses or primaries.
Meanwhile, the two candidates considered the frontrunners for the crucial straw poll in Ames on Saturday (Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann) both looked utterly inconceivable as president of the United States. Aside from his reflexive condemnations of U.S. “militarism” (yes, he repeatedly used the word), Dr. Paul’s first incoherent answer about fixing the economy by scrapping the current system of money required subtitles for spectators untutored in the intricacies of the Austrian School.
One can only hope that the next televised encounter will show the field looking more formidable with the addition of Governor Perry (and, very possibly, other fresh faces) and the departure of some of the present participants who are bidding for attention more than presidential power.