Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire lived up to its billing as a contest rigidly centered on the struggling economy. There were no questions on immigration, Iran, abortion rights, Social Security, or anything that would allow some of the candidates to operate in a greater comfort zone.
At the same time, the sheer volume of contenders (the field still hasn’t winnowed) meant that no one was forced to reveal too many precise details on how he or she would turn the country around. Everyone is still getting ample opportunity to speak. Good for all involved. Bad for viewers who want to get past talking points.
The end result? Largely status quo. Mitt Romney acted like a student who expected to ace his economics exam, and he pretty much did. There was a newfound focus on Herman Cain’s (say it with us) “9-9-9” tax plan, and Rick Perry still appeared to be the most laid-back Texan since Matthew McConaughey.
Here’s a look back at how each candidate performed in the debate, which was sponsored by Bloomberg and the Washington Post.
High point: In a combative exchange with Perry over the Massachusetts healthcare plan, Romney, at least for the moment, managed to turn a vulnerability into an asset, by comparing how his state took care of the poor versus Texas. "We have less than 1% of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas," Romney said. "I care about people."
Also: In the portion where each candidate was allowed to question another, Romney’s obviously strategic choice to ignore Perry in favor of Michele Bachmann brought snickers coast-to-coast.
Low point: He grew a bit snippy about responding to a question involving a banking meltdown scenario and the front-runner's breezy façade cracked a little.
High point: Perry is most comfortable talking about energy independence—and that showed. But even that topic tripped him a bit as he was pushed hard on a Texas loan program similar to the Obama administration program that produced the Solyndra debacle.
Low point: It’s arguable that Perry’s low point came at a party after the debate in Hanover, where he told a group of students that the American Revolution took place in the “16th century.” But during the debate itself, Perry at one point wondered aloud why all these candidates were talking about “policy” (because it’s a debate about economic policy?) and said he would not be detailing his own economic plan that evening, because he would be unveiling it later this week.
High point: 9-9-9. 9-9-9. 9-9-9!
Low point: 9-9-9. Seriously. Cain’s incessant pumping of his program was at first sort of endearing but then grew tiring as the feeling built that he wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about anything else. Then he had to go bring up Alan Greenspan. (See Ron Paul.)
High point: if there is a Comeback Debater of the Week award, it would go to Bachmann, who has had a rough time of it since winning the Ames, Iowa, straw poll. But she was more poised than usual and had salient facts at her command, even dropping a reference to the Spanish-American War in 1898 for good measure. She opened up a good line of attack on Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and the dangers of handing Congress a new tax to exploit. (And invoking the mark of the beast in the process.)
Low point: Bachmann said she is a “federal tax” attorney. “That’s what I do for a living,” she said. Except that she hasn’t done that for a living for years. (She’s a congresswoman.) And as a federal tax attorney, she should know that her claim about students one day handing over 75% of their income to the federal government has been shown to be patently false.
High point: About a minute after Cain (who was a favorite punching bag Tuesday night) said he would look for someone such as Alan Greenspan to be his Federal Reserve chairman, Paul replied: “Alan Greenspan was a disaster.”
Low point: Paul, who continues to show life in national polls, was invisible for long stretches at a time, and when he did speak, he appeared hyper-focused on his pet issue, the Fed. He needs to make a wider case about how he would govern.
High point: He, too, stuck it to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan pretty good, polling the New Hampshire audience whether anyone would support a national sales tax and perhaps setting a record for most references to “freedom” in a single sentence when he asked Cain whether he would give Washington “the ability to take freedom away from freedom-loving people here in the 'live free or die!' state."
He also banged the other candidates on the Wall Street bailouts, which he didn’t have to worry about voting on because he was already out of the Senate in 2008.
Low point: Santorum again carped about his lack of face time, which, as anyone can tell you, never leads to more face time.
High point: The former speaker was in full Professor Mode for most of the evening, always with an info-stream at the ready, including a long digression on prostate cancer screening. At one point, he upbraided Romney about a capital gains tax cut found on “page 47” of Romney’s plan. He drew a rise from the crowd early on when he talked about bailouts and anger in America.
Low point: Gingrich, like Bachmann, suggested that Wall Street greed played no role in the meltdown of the financial markets and that government was entirely to blame, even calling for former Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank to be jailed, French Revolution-style. (Also, the debate wasn’t 12 minutes old before Gingrich started complaining about the media.)
High point: Defending free trade with China isn’t going to win many points as a populist measure (Santorum, by contrast, said he wanted "to go to war" with China) but Huntsman showed a grasp of international economics that some of his rivals lack—and it could win him the support of some free marketers. He also got in better licks on Romney than Perry or just about anyone else.
Low point: Too much snark. Equating Cain’s tax plan to the price of a pizza sounds like a good line, but it’s not going to win over converts inclined to support Cain. They’ll just see it as mean-spirited. And calling D.C. the “gas capital” of the nation wasn’t funny back in the heyday of Mark Russell.
A chance for a redemption for all candidates lies directly ahead. All of them will tussle again in six short days, when they reconvene in Las Vegas.