Foreign policy and international affairs will ostensibly be the focus of tonight’s CBS News/National Journal Republican Presidential Debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In realilty much of the focus will be on whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can both maintain his lead and begin to expand it out of its seeming ceiling, whether Texas Governor Rick Perry can recover from what most observers say is one of the worst flubs in televised debate history (after several poor debate performances) and whether Herman Cain can continue to pick up his seemingly eroding support in light of him becoming damaged goods due to sexual harassment allegations and a big error in discussing China’s nuclear capability. So there is a SUBJECT — and then there is the real focus which will likely dominate the headlines tomorrow. One probability: no one will utter the word “Oops..”
My focus is on how the participants come across in the race and the possible impact on independent voters — who are not a monolithic group — rather than who I agree with or not. These are the reactions of an independent voter who has belonged to both parties. The most recent entry will be on top. There will NOT be entries on each question and comment. Only if it’s worth commenting on. Also: my actual conclusions are often NOT the same as my initial conclusions after a debate. The more I “digest” what I saw and heard, the more definitive my conclusions are. Here’s my initial reaction to the debate going on right now. ALL TIMES ARE EST. The debate’s moderators are Moderated by CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley and National Journal congressional correspondent Major Garrett.
CBS IS ONLY BROADCASTING 60 MINUTES OF THE DEBATE: The last 30 minutes will be viewed online.
My FINAL conclusions:
ROMNEY gave his usual stellar debate performance.
PERRY helped himself but it’s probably too late.
CAIN didn’t lose or advance himself.
GINGRICH is getting better and better (unless in the second hour he goes after the press again and begins to resemble a crabby neighbor who’s on a condo board trying to fine neighbors).
SANTORUM seems to feel debates are bragfests where he will win votes by flatly telling voters how great he is.
HUNTSMAN is a tragedy. He could have been a contender.
BACHMANN is appealing only to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh fans. She never met a demonization or overstatement that she didn’t like.
A ROMNEY OBAMA RACE would produce solid debates. So would a GINGRICH OBAMA RACE but Gingrich’s appeal to indes is highly limited — and his opponents in his own party and in the Democratic party have not unleashed even a thread of the op-research they have against him yet.
THE BIGGEST LOSER: CBS. This debate was horridly awkward in the way moderators frequently took candidates to task for running long. They seemed truly intrusive. The once-named “Tiffany network” seemed more like the fast political food network as it cut off its broadcast after an hour (you can’t keep ratings hit and huge revenues generating NCIS off the air, you know) so viewers had to run onto the Internet – and the webcast lasted 90 minutes. This was truly an awful way to do a debate. Why bother to carry a debate if you aren’t willing to do it right?
9:26: Huntsman again when talking about Pakistan and Europe sounds like a serious policy maker whose focus is on policy and problems. So what’s he doing in this group of candidates? Am talking now NOT about ideology. But people who seem to seem to want to SOLVE PROBLEMS not just gain power.
9:24: Santorum gives VERY good answers when he talks about Pakistan, the need to work with Pakistan’s intelligence community. “You don’t cowboy this one. You don’t fly into Pakistan and try to interdict a nuclear weapon…” Is he suggesting Obama “cowboyed” it with Osama bin Laden? It’s interesting how he can destroy a thoughtful argument by hitting part of a partisan hotbutton.
GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE DEPT: A reader has emailed me just as I am about to add it. Perry stressed that when he says all countries have to start at zero foreign aid and make their case, that Israel would easily be able to make its case. Perry is not arguing zero foreign aid for all countries just that it is not longer an automatic entitlement: that there has to be some guarentee.
8:56: Perry makes another reference to his brain freeze which gets a laugh. But Gov. Perry BEWARE: even David Letterman is careful about the number of “callbacks” he makes referring to a joke that bombed because after a while it can get tiresome and be counter productive.
8:52: This is NOT a barn burning debate. The most serious, thoughtful candidate who’d appeal to independents: Huntsman. Which. Means. He. Doesn’t. Have. A. Chance. When you listen to Huntsman, you realize how utterly exiled from the current GOP this one strong branch of the Republican Party is. Will people who think and talk like Hunstman become independents? Will they move to the Dems? Some still advocate a third party but our system is stacked against that. Huntsman belongs in the same category as Colin Powell, Michael Bloomberg and the old version of Mitt Romney that Romney is running away from.
8:48: Perry asked about China. Thinks Communist China government will end up like Reagan warned about Russia, on “the ash heap of history.” Talks about cyberwar with China — call sit one of the biggest future issues. Solid answer.
8:46: Gingrich seems to be the one best connecting with this audience. Agree with him or not, he’s being specific, not fudging what he feels and rattles off a bunch of ideas. I expect his poll numbers to go up steadily.
8:45: Romney answer seems to be squishy. Sounds like he supports waterboarding, or does he? He says he’d use “whatever means necessary within the law” to protect Americans.
8:43: Huntsman. Says we have “values” and a “name brand” in the world. Cites his experience. Says we diminish our standing when we torture and “waterboarding is torture.” (At least he wasn’t booed…)
8:42: More Bachmann polemics which illustrates why she would be poison in terms of attracting independent voters. She says Obama is letting the ACLU run the CIA. Oh really? It’s that simple? Is pro-waterboarding Bachmann running for President or a fill in host for Rush Limbaugh? I suspect she won’t have success with EITHER.
8:41: On torture, Cain says he’d leave it up to military leaders to define what is and is not torture. He says waterboarding was “enhanced interrogation technique…I don’t see it as torture” and he’d go back to that policy.
8:39: Perry and Pelley allude to Perry’s brain freeze. Perry argues that being Governor of Texas gives him experience being a commander in chief of the U.S. and dealing with generals. Once again, if Perry and these others just answer the questions they’re asked I bet they’d do better with voters.
8:37: Listening to Santorum is becoming like watching Chris Matthews on Hardball these days. Matthews simply cannot stop plugging his book to the point where the show needs to be renamed “Kennedyball.” Santorum cannot talk without patting himself on the back. When he answers the actual question he does fine but he limits his own effectiveness with a hard sell that won’t win him votes.
8:34: Gingrich clashing with Garrett on a question. When asked how he’d think outside the box, he offers some specificity. I could see how conservatives may increasingly feel he’s a good one from their ideological part of the party to go up against Obama if Cain fizzlers.
8:30: So far one of the most serious debates so far. No one has made a major mistake and they all look good, in terms of their target audience. Perry is on the rebound, but his candidacy is probably doomed. Romney is putting in another solid performance. Cain has done his homework. Gingrich continues to be an impressive figure in debates — unless he slips into his attack the press mode which appears to non GOPers as political pandering to the crowd and hubris from his years of negative press on his marriages, career and Tiffany’s. The others are doing fine as well.
8:28: Santorum argues Pakistan MUST be the U.S. friends due to its nukes and importance and can’t be written off. Notes that the U.S. felt 911 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia but the relationship was vital and so is the relationship with Pakistan. Very good answer on how aid to countries such as Pakistan eventually gets back to the United States.
8:27: Gingrich agrees with Perry about starting off with zero money and make the case for more. He rakes Pakistan over the coals for hiding bin Laden. Also good answer on Syria.
8:25: Bachmann on Pakistan. She doesn’t agree with pulling all foreign aid to Pakistan. She notes Pakistan has nukes and Al Qaeda would love to get it. “It seems like the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel.” Says Obama has been willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street but not with Israel. She has tempered her previously shrill delivery of lines that are expected to get applause.
8:22: Perry says bigger issue is foreign aid: U.S. needs a President who will send a message. If he’s President foreign aid budget for a country will start at zero dollars. Pakistan showing it doesn’t deserve our foreign aid. Time to say no to giving big bucks to countries that don’t support the U.S. Perry’s answer on this is far better than previous ones; whether you agree with him or not, he’s laying out a case that could generate serious discussion.
8:22: Cain wants Pakistan to make more solid commitments to the United States if the the U.S. Calls for a stronger “regional strategy.”
8:20: Gingrich says Taliban can’t be stopped due to role of Pakistan. “This has to be a much larger strategic discussion” that includes Pakistan and Iran. Good answer. And you can see him debating Obama on foreign policy.
8:19: Romney on question whether to negotiate with Taliban says Obama withdrawal from Afghanistan seems partially political.
8:17: John Huntsman: good answer about what’s needed in the future and about our foreign policy in general. Wants to bring troops home but offers a slew of components that are need to bolster a withdrawal If Huntsman had been handled differently he’d be a player. He let the moment pass.
8:16: Bachmann seems lower key and more thoughtful on her answer. But I need to say it: she increasingly reminds me of Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna character from the old SNL.
8:14: Santorum insists on going back to Iran. But he reminds me of an Andy Rooney essay: “I….I….I….I…I…” its one big pat on the back. Santorum’s answers when he gets to ANSWERING THE QUESTION are not bad. He veers off course.
8:12: Perry insists on talking on several topics. Not bad answers but he’d do better if he just answered the question at hand. Perry looks good on TV, is (so far but the night is young) well prepped. But he’s not exciting or really noteworthy.
8:11: Ron Paul says not worth going to war over Iran nukes, and if so you “do it the old fashioned way” by going to Congress — and that he fears we’re seeing a rerun of the propaganda that was a run up to the Iraq war.
8:09: Newt Gingrich. Let’s take BETS NOW on how long it’ll be before he attacks the press. Gingrich is a crowd pleaser for GOPers. He offers content, rattling off ideas (whether you agree with them not) with some zingers. Agrees with Romney that if in the end nothing works you have to “take all steps necessary” to prevent them from getting a weapon.
8:06: Romney calls Iran “President Obama’s bigger failing” — that Obama missed his moment and should have supported the opposition covertly, and imposed tougher sanctions. Romney argues with Pelley about his time and is proven right (so he’s not doing a Newt Gingrich imitation.) Promises if he’s elected Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. Romney argues for “crippling sanctions,” working with the opposition and if all else fails “of course you would (then) take military action.” Obama, he says, has made it clear he won’t do the things to prevent Iran from getting a nuke.
8:05 p.m. Cain asked what he’d do that administration isn’t doing differently on Iran. His answer is a well-prepared one. Cain’s strength is his salesmanship, which requires good preparation. Major Garrett asks Cain if by assisting the opposition there he is suggesting military. Cain says no.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.