1/06/2008

Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (R)

So much political news has taken place over the past few days. I'm still poring over the entrance polls from the Iowa caucuses, but I had to tune into the Republican and Democratic debates tonight because they were the first debates post-Iowa and were the first debates that didn't have 724 candidates on stage. To ABC's credit, they did a respectable job of keeping only the most relevant candidates on stage. As a result, the debate was quite informative and well-paced. The candidates all had a lot of time to articulate their positions and even challenge each other. In other words, this debate was an actual debate.

Both debates were well conducted. The moderators were professional, but tough. And they were keen on reminding the candidates when they did not answer the questions posed to them. The questions were substantive and relevant. And having all the candidates from both parties appear on stage together between the debates was a nice touch, as it likely reminded the candidates of the importance of being civil even when attacking their rivals.

This post will address the Republican debate, which took place first. (My take on the Democratic debate is here.) Here are my thoughts:

1. It is obvious that nobody likes Mitt Romney. He was attacked by McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, and Thompson. They challenged him on immigration, supporting the surge in Iraq, the veracity of Romney's campaign ads, and health care. Everybody knew Romney was significantly weakened after his second place showing in the Iowa caucuses. It was as if the other candidates smelled blood and went in for the kill. As a result, Romney spent a lot of time on defense and came across as weak. For Republicans, projecting strength matters, especially because Republicans pride themselves on being tough on our nation's enemies, or at least tougher than the Democrats.

2. Romney also has a very serious brand problem. The "flip flop" label has stuck and his rivals are making sure voters know that. For example, Romney told Huckabee not to misrepresent his position on an issue during the debate, but Huckabee then shot back, "Which one?" Ouch. Romney was also talking about the importance of "change" in this election before McCain chimed in, "Yes, you certainly are the candidate of 'change,'" a reference to the "changes" in Romney's positions. These attacks were so strong that even a casual observer with little political knowledge whatsoever could understand what was going on. There is a very real risk now that whenever a voter hears the name "Romney," they may immediately associate "flip flopping" with it.

3. Mike Huckabee seems more in tune with regular people than the other candidates. The other candidates talked a lot about how the Democrats and Hillary Clinton would take this nation over a cliff. But rather than join in the Hillary-bashing and berating the "Democrat Party (sic)," Huckabee talked about the importance of leadership and getting things done. He seemed more concerned with actual governance and solving our nation's problems than the other candidates, who did a better job of trying to bruise each other and give the opposition party a black eye. Pay special attention to the discussion about health care and the number of uninsured Americans. Most of the other candidates dismissed this and talked about how "the US had the best medical system in the world" and how "socialized medicine" is a disaster. This all may or may not be true, but none of those candidates addressed the issue of those who are uninsured now. To Huckabee's credit, he actually addressed the issue.

Even though Huckabee's positions on social issues are not a good fit for a moderate state like New Hampshire, I do believe the voters there may reward him for his pragmatism, his authenticity, and his desire to actually get something done other than bickering.

4. Fred Thompson seems to be a better candidate now than he was when he first entered the race. But is it too little too late? Thompson seemed more confident and more comfortable with his delivery than in previous debates. He also spoke more directly and did a good job of reducing the other candidates' extended answers and obfuscations to simple, easy to digest barbs. It is too late for Thompson to place higher than fourth or fifth in New Hampshire, but South Carolinians who were watching the debate might be more inclined to give him a second look, likely at Romney's expense.

5. The other candidates are ignoring Ron Paul at their own peril. Aside from Huckabee, Paul was the only candidate to give straight answers to the moderator's questions. Voters who may have had knee-jerk reactions to Ron Paul because of his positions on Iraq earlier may have listened to some of his other arguments about inflation and energy and been quite impressed. And the clarity of his answers contrasted nicely with the often indirect and tangential answers some of his opponents gave, especially Rudy Giuliani. He also talked about the importance of getting younger voters involved in the process. Judging from Iowa's entrance polls, Paul is relying heavily on the under 30 crowd. Citing them in this debate reminded these young voters of the power they wield.

6. John McCain had a good debate and played the role of the elder statesman as the other candidates beat up on each other. However, he seemed to speak more to Republican voters than independent ones, as he talked a lot about strength, supporting the surge, and illegal immigration. He didn't talk much about "change," which is an obviously popular theme in this election. Thus, Barack Obama will probably benefit because these independent voters may be more inclined to participate in the Democratic primary instead of the Republican one.

7. Rudy Giuliani's star is fading. Criticizing Ron Paul's Iraq positions and talking about terrorism may be easy for him, but he runs the risk of being seen as having nothing else to run on. His biggest problem is that he is not giving voters a reason to vote for him. He's better at giving voters reasons not to vote for his rivals. He seemed much more negative and confrontational as well, which contrasted with Huckabee.

Semi-predictions

Because the New Hampshire primaries are so soon, I think McCain's performance was strong enough tonight to put him in the driver's seat. He is well positioned to win the primary and complete his marvelous comeback after his near political death experience last summer. Mike Huckabee likely beat voters' expectations of him, as he did not spend a lot of time talking about his positions on social issues that are generally out of step with New Hampshire voters. He likely earned points in these voters' minds by sounding humble, pragmatic, and serious without sounding overly partisan. That seems to be what a lot of voters want. In contrast, Mitt Romney is coming across as weak, unlikable, emotionally detached, boring, and insecure with his positions on the issues. (Why on earth was he defending pharmaceutical companies?!) He did not help himself in the polls with his performance tonight and he had better be concerned with not placing third or even fourth. Giuliani and Thompson are not really playing in New Hampshire, although Thompson probably did more to help his numbers than Giuliani did. And given the independent and libertarian nature of New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Ron Paul placed third in the primary.

5 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

We must have been at different debates. McCain and his grinning swipes just made him look mean. He received the lowest score of the day in the debate focus group. The danger in this debate is that not everyone will have been exposed to the well poisoning of Romney. He responded well, he had an air of being above the attacks and he got a lot of time to speak. I wasn't sure about him before tonight. It is Romney or Guiliani. McCain dropped off my list.

Nikki said...

I have to agree with anonymous. They did all look "negative" and the poor picked on candidates who hate the money machine looked like they were ganging up on the popular kid. I only saw clips of the debate, but I thought Romney did great considering. Even George Stephanopolos thought Romney seemed the biggest threat because he was attacked the most. the dems all looked like foreign policy kindergartners. bad dems can't keep their policies straight, because they have to be opposite of Mr.Bush at all times. I though they all did terrible at the foregn line of questioning. Tough but not. talk about political schizaprhrenia. come general election time they better get it straight.
N

oso diablo said...

Anthony, i saw one pundit (can't remember where) that said the biggest winner of the GOP debate was... Barack Obama. Because of the (relatively) positive comments made about him by the GOP candidates. I'd be interested in your take on that point.

p.s. i have to admit that Romney made some good points last night. i was especially interested in his "connector" approach to health insurance. not sure i fully understood it. on the other hand, it's quite an eye-roll moment whenever he complains about personal attacks.

Anthony Palmer said...

Anonymous,

You are right in that McCain's mannerisms are inappropriate. I watched the FNC debate tonight and picked up on that. However, I lent more credence to the substance of McCain's rhetoric, rather than his body language, when I wrote this post.

As for Romney, everybody was ganging up on him and they were hitting him pretty hard. When the Democrats were ganging up on Hillary Clinton last fall, it was different because Clinton was seen as the frontrunner back then. Romney is not the frontrunner now. His equals were the ones trying to kneecap him. And these attacks reminded voters of his very weakness: his flip flops. And I also think he looked weak because he was complaining about "negative attacks" when he was doing the exact same thing in his ads.

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Nikki,

Bush has been polling in the 20s and 30s for about two years now. There comes a point when even Bush loyalists have to concede that more people disagree with his policies than agree with him. Now, you are right that blind partisanship and opposing Bush just for the sake of opposing him is no good. However, in a "change" election, showing agreement with Bush's policies does not seem like a politically wise thing for a politician to do, especially a Democrat. Remember, if voters do indeed want "change," you have to think about exactly what they want a change FROM. It would seem that they want a change from Bush's policies and Bush's style of leadership.

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Oso,

I did write a bit about Obama and how the Republican candidates had difficulty making the case against him. The GOP made the mistake of banking on running against Clinton in the general election. Should she not survive, the GOP will need to think of a new playbook, and quick.

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Nikki said...

Anthony, I would only add that "change" would mean any one in Congress or the Senate with an even lower approval rating than the President. And that is Hillary and Obama. Change in my mind means ALL of Washington.......:) N

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