Last night, a group of seven GOP presidential hopefuls held the second Republican debate of the season at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. For three of those candidates, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann, it was the first appearance of the 2012 election campaign. The other four panelists were Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Overall, the debate was a very civil affair, even surprisingly so. None of the candidates attacked each other, focusing almost exclusively on challenging the Obama administration’s agenda. And although there was no discernible victor, Monday night’s debate was certainly a watershed moment in the developing campaign season, offering the first near-complete look at the Republican presidential field.
Depending on which poll one believes, the current GOP front-runner is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. What kind of front-runner? According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, one tied with Barack Obama at 47 percent apiece, and the leading Republican candidate to date. But according to a more recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, although Romney is still Mr. Obama’s closest rival, he trails the president by a 51 to 38 percent margin. Romney’s principal advantage is a high-degree of name recognition. His principal disadvantage is a similar degree of recognition regarding RomneyCare, the Massachusetts healthcare plan that Democrats purportedly used as a model to create President Obama’s healthcare overhaul plan.
This apparent Achilles’ heel has earned Romney significant ridicule from fellow presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty in recent days. Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, has made efforts to target Romney directly, most recently in the coining of the term “ObamneyCare.” Although strategically concerned with proving that he is a threat to the presumptive GOP front-runner, Pawlenty has also struggled with charisma, which he hopes a solid conservative record will overshadow. This is unlike Pawlenty’s fellow Minnesotan and newly-confirmed GOP presidential contender Rep. Michelle Bachmann. A Tea Party favorite, Bachmann’s primary challenges are broadening her support base and proving that, while she is ambitious, she is also a serious candidate. Bachmann stands the greatest chance at channeling enthusiastic Sarah Palin supporters in the absence of the former Alaskan governor’s run, which might explain why her newly-hired campaign consultant, Ed Rollins, criticized Sarah Palin almost immediately upon getting the job.
A number of pundits thought businessman Herman Cain, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, won the first GOP debate in South Carolina in May. With no political experience — which he considers an advantage in the current political climate — Cain is the “outsider candidate.” And although he suffers from a lack of name recognition, a Gallup poll declared his supporters to be the “most fervent” of any GOP candidate. He is also adept as using the same social media Barack Obama used to his advantage in 2008.
A key moment emerged early in the debate when Tim Pawlenty was given the opportunity to draw a distinction between himself and Mitt Romney with respect to healthcare and his “ObamneyCare” characterization of Romney’s plan. Pawlenty had noted earlier to the press that he did not intend to bring up his neologism because he did not want to create a distracting “rift.” Thus, when CNN moderator John King asked, “If it was Obamneycare on ‘Fox News Sunday,’ why isn’t it Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?” Pawlenty backed down from his association of Romney and Obama’s policy records, reinforcing the idea that he lacks the fire necessary to challenge Obama.
As for Romney, he was very steady, and smartly returned to his overall economic theme of “Obama has failed America” as often as possible without forcing the issue. Another concept he came back to repeatedly was states’ rights and the idea that problems should be solved at the local level, or even by private enterprise wherever possible. If there was a moment when he seemed ill at ease, it was when he explain the nuances of his differences with the Obama administration regarding the auto bailouts. As the purported front-runner going into the debate, there was nothing that occurred last night which would radically alter that perception.
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