Tuesday night’s debate allowed for the division of the eight GOP candidates into four convenient categories of two contenders each:
NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME
Rick Perry and especially Herman Cain. On foreign policy, the subject at hand, they offered only simplistic and soporific soundbites, and gave no evidence of ever having thought seriously (no, not for an hour) about the nation’s role in the world. Perry has gotten much better at remembering and delivering his lines, but he didn’t appear to understand his own proposal of “no-fly zone” for Syria or to acknowledge its consequences. Cain still can’t resist answering tough questions by saying he’ll consult experts—and provide an answer only after he becomes president. Not reassuring.
STRONG BUT IRRELEVANT
Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are both gifted communicators and honorable public servants, but they conveyed a perceptible edge of resentment over the fact that they’ve been pushed to the margins of the current race. A discernable sense of grudge isn’t an appealing quality in a candidate. Bachmann delivered an unworthy cheap shot in misrepresenting Gingrich’s immigration position as “giving legal status to 11 million.”
STRONG BUT WRONG
Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Can Republicans win by running to Obama’s left on foreign policy and seizing the support of peaceniks and isolationists? The Ron-Jon duo seems to think so, and both of them made their most persuasive cases to date for their point of view, with Huntsman in particular showing vastly improved skills as a TV debater. These enhancements may help him with his likely run (if Obama wins) in 2016, but in 2012 he’s going nowhere—the “come home America” George McGovern mantra may have worked among Democrats in 1972, but 40 years later it will appeal only to a small minority of Republicans.
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney won the debate, as expected, for the simple reason that it’s possible to envision either of them, and none of the others, leading the nation at a time of crisis. Gingrich delivered the least demagogic immigration response in any GOP debate so far by acknowledging it’s neither possible nor desirable to deport or ignore all 12 million here without documentation. He also persuasively insisted that any strike on Iran must serve to destroy the regime, not strengthen it. Informed, self-assured, with Reaganite insistence on resuming America’s world-leading role, both men could debate Barack Obama credibly, and one of the two of them will almost certainly get the chance to do so.