Debate Nonsense

Man, you could just feel the stupid last night, at the GOP Presidential debate up in Manchester, New Hampshire. The idiocy, the closed-information-loop spiral of nonsense reinforcing nonsense.

No, I'm not talking about the candidates; I'm talking about the media punditocracy.

Everywhere you look and listen, you're being told that the candidates, particularly Tim Pawlenty, ruined themselves by not attacking Mitt Romney last night. Romney, they say, won a towering victory as a result.

Well, it's certainly true that Pawlenty and the others refrained from directly attacking Romney. They had obviously all come to St. Anselm with the strategic decision not to attack him, and they all held fast to that plan despite the desperate attempts by the folks at CNN, who did everything but hand out giant whack-a-mole mallets and offer prizes for levelling the former Massachusetts governor.

So, why is it that all six of the other candidates on stage, and their strategists, all chose the same path of avoiding direct assaults on the frontrunner? Perhaps because, unlike most of the great media punditocracy, they are not utter blithering morons.

And I say that with nothing but love and respect for my journalistic brethren.

Look, this wasn't the final debate, three days before the primary, with the whole electorate watching to choose among the three remaining viable candidates. This was the first of a very long series of debates and forums, with a relatively small audience getting their first real impressions of the field. (One previous televised debate this cycle, in South Carolina, did not include Romney.)

You don't come out and introduce yourself as the mean guy attacking one of your fellow Republicans -- especially if you're a relatively unknown quantity, as Pawlenty and the others are at this point. Not only does that turn people off, it's also ineffective; one of the rules many campaign strategists will tell you is that the candidate needs some stature in voters' eyes before their attacks on a fellow candidate can resonate, and do more harm to the target than the attacker.

At this point in the campaign, attacking Romney would only have reinforced his image as a giant among wannabes, the presumptive if not inevitable nominee he is so carefully trying to present himself as. (Plus, if the debate had devolved into the snipe-fest so badly desired by the pundits, that would have rolled out a red carpet for the upcoming campaign launches of Jon Huntsman and, likely, Rck Perry.)

And this setting is particularly problematic, because very few people actually watch a primary debate seven months before the primary -- especially not in New Hampshire when the Bruins are in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on another channel -- but lots of primary voters are likely to see and hear brief clips later. And if Pawlenty, or the others, had attacked Romney, that would have been the clip used, and that would be the introduction.

I would actually argue that, intentionally or not, Pawlenty played CNN and the rest of the media beautifully. He used the term "Obamneycare" (a linguistic gift from heaven which supposedly came out of some citizen's mouth inadvertently at a Pawlenty campaign event earlier in the week, although I'm looking to verify that provenance) to attack Mitt on one of the Sunday talk shows this past weekend. This created a huge stir among the roughly 587 people who watch the Sunday morning talk shows. So, even though Pawlenty's campaign said yesterday that he would not be repeating the term at the debate, moderator John King did his best Sam Kinison ("SAY IT!!!!!"), interrupting as T-Paw tried to answer the substance rather than the semantics. This was the media's A-ha! moment, which means that this morning I am already flooded with the repeating image of Pawlenty being nice while the media explains that Obamneycare is a new term illustrating that Romney implemented essentially the same health care reform plan that Obama did. Explain to me again why this is bad for Pawlenty?

All that said, I do think Romney performed well last night. In part that was because he wasn't being attacked, and put on the defensive. He was able to stay loose and relaxed -- actually staying out of the conversation as much as possible -- and stick to his well-rehearsed "answers to frequently asked questions."

But at the same time, he was unispiring, and, even with the restraint from the other candidates, several of his apostasies from conservative doctrine were revealed.

More importantly, to my eyes the stature gap between him and the field shrunk, rather than grew, despite his solid performance. That's because the field was surprisingly serious and mature, and have clearly been spending time with their coaches. Rick Santorum, who often comes across as a raving loon, seemed more like a big-state former US Senator. Michelle Bachmann was quite good, I thought. Even Newt Gingrich was steady and serious. Ron Paul is Ron Paul of course, although this was one of his less arms-flailing-maniacal-eyed evenings. Only Herman Cain came across as a real ill-informed fringe job, and that's a pretty good showing for a field at this stage, when you usually have several Tancredos, Hunters, Bauers, and Keyeses in the mix.

That may have been a problem for Pawlenty. He was OK -- he really shined talking about religion and social issues, I thought, but was weaker at other points. But he wants to separate himself from the pack -- as Romney did in early 2007, rising from the Tommy Thompsons and Mike Huckabees into the McCain-Giuliani top tier. It would be helpful for him to do that before Perry jumps in as an instant top-tier member, but he's got time -- and the fundraising numbers he announces in two weeks will mean more for that than this one debate anyway.

But at least Pawlenty didn't do something to hurt himself last night -- like, say, coming out bashing Romney like the pundits all think he should have done.

Which reminds me of an important question to ponder this morning. Which is better for a candidate in a Republican primary race: to be criticized by David Frum and the lame-stream media, or to get a glowing column from super-influential conservative Thomas Sowell? Tough call, but it sounds like a win-win for Pawlenty to me.

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