1/06/2008

Fox News New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

Yet another debate took place in New Hampshire tonight. This debate was the subject of much controversy, as Ron Paul was not invited to participate even though he is polling better than Fred Thompson in New Hampshire and performed better than Rudy Giuliani in the Iowa caucuses. However, the small number of candidates again allowed everyone to provide extended answers and challenge each other without having to worry too much about the clock. Fox News, which sponsored this debate, however, would be wise to clearly state the criteria that must be met when extending debate invitations. They cited double-digit national polling numbers as the criteria necessary to participate, but that might not be the most meaningful or fairest way to include or exclude candidates, especially in light of the Iowa caucuses that had just taken place. It seems at first glance that Fox News was trying to silence the candidate they don't like or have fundamental disagreements with.

As for the candidates' performances...

Mitt Romney had his best debate in a long time tonight. He looked competent, collected, and presidential. He was a bit more aggressive towards his rivals tonight and spent less time on defense, which was a huge contrast from the previous debate yesterday where he was the designated punching bag. If Romney could deliver such steady performances in the debates and on the campaign trail more consistently, he would be a much more formidable candidate. However, he still seems a bit emotionally distant and has a tendency to sound more like an impersonal manager than a galvanizing leader. Also, at a time when voters are angry about their finances and how they're working harder for less money and less job security, it is not wise for Romney to run as the champion of corporations. He did that again tonight. The business wing of the Republican Party is probably quite happy about this, but average voters likely don't want to hear their president pay more attention to businesses than the people who work for them, even if the businesses are what provide the jobs. Should Romney make it as far as the general election, he would be wise to heed this advice. Having said that, Romney turned in a much stronger debate and erased his awful performance yesterday from the front pages.

John McCain did reasonably well at the debate, but Romney occasionally got the best of him when he was confronted on his positions on the Bush tax cuts and visas for illegal immigrants. However, he did remind voters of why they liked him so much when he talked about how he brought "change" to the United States regarding his conviction on Iraq and the surge. Romney tried to suggest that McCain was less qualified to prosecute military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that was a stretch that only elevated McCain at Romney's expense. Romney's debate performance was stronger than McCain's, but McCain did not do anything to hemorrhage any support in the polls. However, McCain does need to work on his body language and mannerisms a bit because he has displayed a tendency to smirk or chuckle inappropriately, often after hitting one of his rivals with a tough attack. It reminds me of a strange grin McCain gave at a debate last spring after passionately expressing his determination to capture Osama bin Laden. It just seems weird, and even a bit off-putting and childish.

I am not sure what Fred Thompson brings to these debates. He has had a tendency to make inappropriate remarks and snide comments that may seem colorful at first, but ultimately make him appear immature and unpresidential. His wisecracks may remind voters of President Bush, and not in a good way. For someone who is polling at about 2% in New Hampshire and isn't even campaigning there, I am unsure of why he was even included in this debate. Supporters of Ron Paul have every right to be outraged about this.

Rudy Giuliani got lost in the shuffle tonight. It is amazing how far Giuliani has fallen. He was seated at the far end of the table and was not the center of the dialogue. And he failed to say anything in this debate that he has not said already. How thin has his 9-11 mantra worn among voters? Giuliani had better hope that McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney wins Michigan, and Huckabee or Thompson wins South Carolina because the only way Giuliani can win the nomination is if his conservative opposition remains divided. Should a single consensus conservative alternative arise, Giuliani would be in serious trouble because he seems not to have much to offer Republicans anymore other than his leadership in New York City after the terrorist attacks there.

And finally, Mike Huckabee had one of his poorer debates in that he spent a bit more time on the defensive and appeared evasive when confronted by tough questions from Mitt Romney. However, again, Huckabee seems to be the only Republican candidate who understands the concerns of average people. The other candidates could not stop talking about curbing spending, tax cuts, why the Democrats are bad for America, and supporting the mission in Iraq, which are generally good things for Republicans to talk about. However, families concerned about the price of gas, increases in their children's college tuition, and rising health care premiums aren't thinking about tax cuts and "socialized medicine." They're thinking about how to make ends meet and they need help. New Hampshire voters are much more moderate and more libertarian than Huckabee's evangelical base that turned out for him in Iowa. However, he may be rewarded with a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary because he has his finger on the pulse of the concerns of a lot of voters. The other candidates would be wise to spend less time reciting familiar Republican talking points and a bit more time addressing the concerns of actual people.

Fox News presented this debate and the format allowed for some tough exchanges between the candidates. However, I found the question selection to be poor, as they spent so much time talking about tax cuts and rehashing the same questions about illegal immigration. Obviously, these are major issues for Republican voters and New Hampshire voters. The problem, however, is that the questions and the exchanges that followed did not really allow for any new ground to be broken. Also, these questions seemed to be more focused on ideological purity than on practical solutions. I refer to the appeal of Mike Huckabee's rhetoric again here. Being the toughest on illegal immigration, cutting taxes the most, and being the staunchest defender of the mission in Iraq may please the Republican base, but they don't do anything to bring moderates and independents into the Republican tent. McCain in particular is going to need these independents now in the primary, but whoever wins the nomination is going to need these independents in the general election.

9 Comments:

Thomas said...

Anthony, if Mitt Romney loses in New Hampshire, is he done?

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

New Hampshire to Mitt Romney is what Iowa was to John Edwards. Romney was supposed to win Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are states where he has advertised and campaigned in heavily. If he doesn't win in those states, then where will he win?

A Romney loss in New Hampshire will send him into South Carolina 0 for 2. Huckabee is the better fit for evangelical voters there and McCain is a better fit for the military vet voters there. Doubts about Romney's Mormonism and military toughness will doom him, especially when combined with the stigma associated with "loser candidates."

As for Michigan, the poor economic situation there means Huckabee's rhetoric about showing concern for the middle class will resonate. And remember, McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000. So it's tough sledding for Romney there too.

John Edwards probably should have dropped out after not winning Iowa. He now has to hope that Obama and Clinton stumble. Clinton is looking weak, but how can he overtake Obama? He doesn't have the money, the polling, or the infrastructure to go the distance against either of those candidates. So he's on borrowed time. Should Romney lose again, he'll be in the same position Edwards is in now--the guest who should have left the party an hour ago. HOWEVER, unlike Edwards, Romney has the advantage of deep pockets. But all the money in the world can't buy a victory. McCain is the stronger general election candidate, and Huckabee is more in touch with the concerns of Middle America. Romney is more of a consensus candidate, but until he starts winning primaries, he will also be seen as a *nonviable* consensus candidate.

Romney can PROBABLY go on if he places second in New Hampshire (he'd be in serious trouble though), but a third place showing would absolutely destroy him, especially if Huckabee or Ron Paul manages to place third. Remember, New Hampshire has a strong libertarian bent, so Ron Paul is a real risk there.

That's my take.

Nikki said...

I have to mention the case studies of John Kerry and Howard Dean as someone who was last and ended up first and first and ended up last. Joh Kerry was polling TERRIBLE before his emergence so I have to disagree with the assessment that Romney is finished. but we will have to watch

Anthony Palmer said...

Nikki,

The reason why your case studies don't apply to Mitt Romney is because Romney was supposed to be the front-runner, not Huckabee or McCain. Romney was beaten in Iowa by a lesser known, less well-funded, and less organized candidate. And if he loses in New Hampshire, it will make Romney an 0 for 2 candidate in states he was supposed to win. You don't get momentum if you don't win, plain and simple. Losing to Huckabee and McCain would make it exceptionally difficult for him to win Michigan or South Carolina. If your case studies do have any relevance to Romney, it looks more like Romney is Howard Dean, rather than John Kerry. John Kerry was polling terribly. But Mitt Romney was not.

Romney's not dead, and he won't be dead even if he wins New Hampshire, but politics these days doesn't seem to allow for prolonged campaigns. (Note the unfair influence of the early states.) He's going to have to win somewhere eventually. The fact that he couldn't win despite spending all that money is quite revealing.

Nikki said...

Anthony, Your point is well-taken however, my point was not to predict by comparison only to point out that it is unpredictable, no one would have predicted John Kerry and no one now would predict Mitt Romney even when he was the front runner. Nikki

Anthony Palmer said...

You seem to be selling Romney short.

I actually (incorrectly) predicted that Romney would win Iowa. And the RCP average showed Romney leading most polls until the last week or so. And even though Romney is trailing McCain in New Hampshire, he still has a chance to win there too.

Of course these contests are unpredictable, but it seems like you are saying Romney is in the same category as someone who has almost no chance whatsoever of winning, like Duncan Hunter or Fred Thompson.

When Thompson placed 3rd in Iowa, that wasn't a disappointment because nobody expected him to win there anyway. However, Romney's 2nd place showing was a huge disappointment because he had been the frontrunner there for so long and had invested so much money there. And it looks like the same thing is happening in New Hampshire, although he still has a chance to win. I'd venture that he has a 35% chance of victory there, given how the polls look and how he's been campaigning.

When weak candidates win or do better than expected (Huckabee, Thompson), it's major news. When weak candidates lose (Giuliani, Hunter), it's not news and nobody cares. But when strong candidates lose (Romney), it is news, and it is disappointing. Romney is "supposed" to win these contests, but so far he hasn't. It's not that everybody is writing him off as having no chance at all; it's that he's not delivering the goods--at least not yet. Should McCain lose New Hampshire, Romney will receive the Huckabee treatment and McCain will be the subject of the "What went wrong?" stories.

Nikki said...

Anthony, for me I don't think Mitt has gotten very good press. I have listened conservative radio talk show hosts that were demonizing him and his "attack ads" which I didn't find offensive at all. He may have a lot of money and was expected to do better but I think he has gotten the brunt of negative press. I am not saying they haven't all had their share, and of course the front runner always gets the brunt. But Huckabee seems to get a free pass on ignorance. His comments on Pakistan and mormons worshipping satan were reported as incidents and they were not editorialized. Even Shawn Hannity on Fox last night after the debate gave Huck a chance to clarify his jumbled tax question. I do think the true conservative test is passing Mitt by, which might be good for the general election. It is all annoying to me. I think the media drives a bus of influence and portrayal of the candidates and Mitt is not resonating with the media conservatives. To me it is not "him" pre se, it is the media portrayal of him that is hurting him. sorry it took me so long to get to that point....:) N
and I wanted to add one thing about the Bush comment that most people disagree with his policies......I would suggest that most people don't know his policies. I don't think he is perfect or even close, there have been mistakes plenty and Clinton at this time had extremely low approval ratings himself and Al distanced himself from him. It is partially due to fatigue.

Silence Dogood said...

"It seems at first glance that Fox News was trying to silence the candidate they don't like or have fundamental disagreements with." It really seems like that more than just at first glance. As far as money is concerned I would have to think that Paul is heads and shoulder's above some of these other candidates the were on stage. I don't agree with Paul on but a handful of issues, but I think it was disappointing and disingenuous to keep him out of the debate he was only edged out by several of the candidates who were on stage and Paul will probably get in the double digits in N.H. (or very well could). That sounds viable to me. I was much less disappointed with the exclusion of Kucinich from the Democratic debates, his polling numbers, finish in Iowa, and fundrasising/national network all should have been factors for excluding him - Paul on the other hand was acutally ahead of it no very close to the other candidates who debated in the R debate. This was a strange and unfortunate decision on Fox's part. Fox viewers and the network itself always decry the rest of the MSM (of which they are a part) for agenda driven news. Looks like Fox showed its colors on this one though and I don't think it is because anyone is out there showing Ron Paul is a 'raving liberal.'

Anthony Palmer said...

SD,

I think that even partisan Republicans would have to agree that what FNC did was in bad form. They commonly talk about "media bias," but when it's directed at one of their own who's guilty of it, that probably gave them some pause.

Paul barely finished behind Giuliani. Had Paul snagged fourth, that would have been absolutely devastating psychologically for the Giuliani campaign.