The polls show former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney moving up as Republicans increasingly conclude they want to above all find someone who they feel can beat Presidential Barack Obama. The mission of the other candidates: make their case and cut Romney down to size. Here are a few quick impressions from this independent voter. All times here are PST.
MY CONCLUSIONS AFTER WATCHING THE DEBATE: The talking heads are about to start on CNN. But regardless of what they say here is what I see. (GO HERE to get a complete list of CNN transcripts including the entire text of the debate. GO HERE to watch some video highlights.).
1. Mitt Romney was the slickest, most likable and seemed to answer questions. He probably advanced himself. But he also showed he cannot admit he was wrong, when asked about the auto bailout op-ed he wrote.
2. I found Tim Pawlenty the most excruciating in the debate. I felt the same way watching John Kerry in 2004. He backtracked on his criticism at Mitt Romney. A missed chance? Or he can’t confront him to his face? His answers were not boring as much as too canned. He has a great future as a future governor or Senator.
3. Michele Bachmann advanced her imagery in a positive way. She did not come off as a flake and will be a tough foe for Sarah Palin if Palin runs (don’t hold your breath). UPDATE: Be sure to read Jill Zimon’s post HERE that makes the case that Bachmann was tonight’s real winner.
4. The Democrats more than ever need to realize this was not the bar scene from Star Wars. My impressions here have little to do with ideology but how candidates addressed the issues and presented themselves. No one here was foaming at the mouth and none seemed to be recycling Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. From Ron Paul to Cain to Santorum and all the rest this was a serious bunch.
5. Gingrich came off fairly well. Clearly, though, his moment – if he had one this year – is gone. Conservatives are probably enraged that he is not totally backing House Republicans on Medicare.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike. The National Journal’s poll of political insiders reached the same conclusion: a)Romney and Bachmann were the victors b)the biggest loser was Pawlenty:
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the winner of the first major presidential debate tonight according to a survey of Republican and Democratic political operatives, campaign consultants, and party strategists, in a special National Journal Political Insiders Poll conducted tonight. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann also had a good evening.
Asked who was the “biggest winner” in the debate, a slim majority of Republican Insiders picked Romney. Roughly one-third of the Democratic Insiders concurred.
Republican Insiders thought that Romney was a winner tonight in large part because none of his rivals were able to land any blows that damaged the party’s nominal front-runner. “When you are in the lead every day your opponents don’t knock you back is a good day,” said one GOP Insider. “Made no mistakes, seemed comfortable, and confident,” said another.
Romney also won points when he was able to deflect criticism that the health care reform plan that he helped enact in Massachusetts inspired the national health care reform passed by President Obama and congressional Democrats. “Handled tough questions effectively, asserted his frontrunner status,” said one GOP Insider. “Mitt didn’t take on any water, remains frontrunner,” said another.
Bachmann also won points, surprising some Insiders who had lower expectations for the rookie on the national stage who chose the debate to make her formal declaration as a presidential candidate. “Helped herself, articulate, on message,” said one GOP Insider.
Democratic Insiders were not as bullish on Romney tonight but they concurred with Republican Insiders that Romney emerged from the debate without any permanent scars.
“Romney acted like the front runner and resisted all attempts to knock off message; he’s still the one to beat,” said one Democratic Insider. “The level of debate was higher than I expected,” acknowledged another Democratic Insider. “Romney did not win every question, but he did present himself as the front-runner in the nature of Walter Mondale.Steady and gray. Some may sprint ahead, but slow and steady can win this primary race.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not have such a good night. A slim plurality of Republican and Democratic Insiders thought he was the biggest loser of the evening.
In the 2004 Democratic Presidential Primary debates John Kerry was one of my least favorite candidates. I felt he was reciting more than answering, and vomiting up talking points that were predictable. He got the nomination but to me he was more wooden than some of the dummies I use in my shows.
I watched this debate tonight expecting to be impressed with Pawlenty, but if you read the live blogging below I felt he was the most canned of the candidates, the one who did not answer questions but seemed to want to regurgitate all his prepared material.
He bordered on evading the questions at times. And he wouldn’t confront Romney to his face with the same rhetoric he had used against Romney when he wasn’t faced with Romney. It’s hard to believe he will even be an understudy for the eventual nominee.
Maybe a Veep candidate — but not ready for prime time.
6:58 p.m. Bachmann answer to question about what she learned is too canned. Gingrich panders to audience. I’m tuning them out. No one so far is answering. Ron Paul IS listening and answers. Pawlenty zzzzzzzzzzz. Cain: best answer by Cain.
6:55 p.m.: King gives a question to them about which 2008 Presidential candidate made a better choice. A dumb question. None fan diss Sarah Palin. It just gives them a chance to criticize Obama and Joe Biden. Did he or CNN SERIOUSLY think this would elicit an answer with content to voters who take this debate seriously? King’s second question is better. To Bachmann: who would she hire as Veep? “Maybe we’ll have to have an American Idol contest.” Cute answer. Paul tedious answer.
6:51 p.m. Hallelujah! King goes to a break without the grating “This or that” question. A feature that was good conceptually but needs to be put to rest forever. (I was waiting for “boxers or briefs” or “spray deodorant or stick deodorant.”)
6:41 p.m. I’m most unimpressed with Pawlenty. Not because he is boring. But his answers sound so canned and perfunctory. Bachmann’s debate performance will help her because her answers undermine the caricature of her. People can agree or disagree with her, but she is not coming across as a flake. Answer on Libya states her position quite well. Gingrich does a good job in broadening question but answering the question. He’s the flip side of Pawlenty who seems to veer it off the question.
6:37 p.m. I was unexcited by eminent domain question and answers. Ditto on Ethanol tax. King’s “This or that” is like a joke that bombs. Not as embarrassing as Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Tweets but the debate would not have been hurt without it. May I go out on a limb and say it really looks d-u-m-b? Then I will: dumb.
6:30 p.m.: Cain insists immigration is four problems. “Empower states” to deal with the problem. Tim Pawlenty says if the feds can’t do the job let the states do it. Birthright citizenship, he says, brings up the importance of appointing conservative judges and notes all the conservative judges he has appointed. King asks about rounding up immigrants. Should feds be doing that? Or, King notes, should like Prez Bush and McCain have some kind of plan. Gingrich says it’s “nonsense” the way it has been done: that Cain is correct in breaking it down into four parts. Transplant half of Homeland Security to states that need it for immigration. Gingrich says the choice is not either deport or let them all stay.
6:26 p.m.: Immigration question. Santorum talks about his grandfather (stock answer). Ron Paul: applause line protecting our borders instead of protecting borders Iraq and Afghanistan. King has to try to get him back on track. Paul is all over the place on this issue. Poor focus. Won’t stop talking.
6:24 p.m. Romney on abortions: argues he is sincere. The others agree case closed. This seems like a major development: they are saying case closed now so how can they go after him on his past statements in coming months?
6:23 pm. The answer of GOPers on wanting to get back Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and same sex marriage means there will be one group working very hard against the Republican Party. It is quite consistent.
6:15 p.m.: Same sex marriage red meat question. Bachmann gives expected reply. Would she come in from the White House and campaign in a state? Gave good answers: not the role of Prez to go into a state and interfere with their law. John King a GREAT moderator so far. Good Cain answer. Pawlenty again has to vomit up bio. Paul gets to the issue — keep the government out of it. Romney comes out for a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. Santorum too. Gingrich too. Bachmann clarifies she’d support one two but would not go into states to try to overturn a state law. Her answer should play well with Tea Party supporters. I suspect Palin will find her a tough foe if she enters race.
6:14 p.m.: CNN break. My impressions are the same as below. Romney seems slickest candidate. Pawlenty has some work to do. Bachmann will appeal quite well to her segment of the party. Gingrich does better than many would have predicted. Caine and Paul play well to their niche. Santorum seems in same tier as Gingrich. I long believed Romney would be a formidable candidate for Obama if he could get the nomination and feel moreso the more I watch this.
6:11 p.m: Gingrich fans anti-Muslim feelings in a cacoon of deniability. Not overboard but how could he resist such bait to play to some voters fears?
6:09 p.m. Cain again says would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his administration — those who might want to kill Americans. He tries to differentiate between kinds of Muslims but still comes across as a bigot (and my name is GANDELMAN so I am not a Muslim). He’s arguing that the personal interview would help him determine. But it’s clear that Cain has stepped in it. King is holding him to his earlier interview on this — treating one segment different.
6:06 p.m.: Church and state question. Soft ball question. Santorum believes using faith and reason.
6:03 pm: Debt ceiling issue. Romney doesn’t believe debt ceiling will be raised unless the President “finally, finally will be a leader” and make cuts. Asks where are Obama’s ideas? Says not leading on balancing the budget and on jobs. Evades question on what happens if you don’t raise it. He is skirting the issue. All talking points. He does not want to or cannot answer the question about consequences…adds Obama care” phrase as well. Ahem. Mitt: question was what he thinks consequences would be.
5:56 pm: Entitlements: on Medicare. So far very very predictable. I know what most of them will say before they way it. Gingrich gave a good answer on his original criticism of the GOP on Medicare (going too fast, explain it better). Not at all like like a talk show host or talk show groupie. So he would be toast even without his staff quitting. Santorum picks up the talk show political culture ball. Am I on another planet? Where are all these seniors so excited about the Ryan plan that some of these guys are suggesting? But Gingrich had a POINT: if you are losing the American people slow down. But everyone is praising Ryan.
5:46 p.m. Pawlenty gives good answer on housing crisis until he gets back to trying to prove his ideological creds. These candidates are at their best when they address the question and cut the canned political spam.
5:44 p.m. Question on space exploration. Pawlenty gives serious answer on it — partner with private providers. Gingrich says he was mischaracterized. Romney: brings in role of government “mostly Democrats” favor it. Red meat rhetoric. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Get serious Mitt. You are faltering.
5:42 p.m.: Santorum makes uinions the bogey man of the auto bailout. Bachmann shifts about how she “fought behind closed doors with my own party” on tarp that she took “principles over party.” Will she have to go to the hospital to repair the pulled arm muscle she must have incurred while patting herself on the back?
5:40 pm: Romney asked about auto bail out that he had opposed. Claims it was not a success. That answer will not convince those who aren’t Rush and Fox News fans. It has been a successs. Romney comes across here as someone who does not want to admit that he was wrong. He also starts to throw in red meat rhetoric about keeping government in its place. But John King reads part of his op-ed saying it would fail. Romney still insists he was not wrong. NOT SMART.
5:38 p.m. Applause for Paul about bearucrats and politicians, etc. Carin says he agreed with TARP but not when he saw how the administration implemented it by “selecting winners or losers” and did not believe in “too big to fail.” Applause.
5:37 pm: Moderator John King’s “This or that” question idea was probably good on paper but it seems like a waste of valuable time given our country’s problems.
5:33 pm: Watching this you can’t help thinking: a)Where is Sarah Palin and b)if she was here how would she fare with all of these specific questions that are being asked? I suspect she does not have the discipline and/or desire to prepare for a debate such as this. So far — putting aside any ideology but just looking at this in terms of seriousness — the GOP is showing that it has a group of people who are taking the race seriously and that there is more to it than the soundbites of a Donald Trump or the Facebook entry of a Sarah Palin. I’m most struck so far by the verbal comb-overs of Pawlenty who seems to want to get out his talking points and ignore questions posed to him. That could work in some situations — except most of these Presidential wannabes are addressing the questions they are getting.
5:31 p.m.: Gingrich is an appealing debater (so far). Cain on right to work: Believes in right to work laws and hopes it’ll pass in New Hampshire. Warns of backdoor NLRB manuevers of the administration.
5:30 pm: Had to leave the room for a few minutes..so am resuming my viewing.
5:28 p.m.: Pawlenty on manufacturing. He is actually answering the question posed to him. Am concluding that many voters will look at him and Romney and compare. When he vomits up talking points and ignores a question it does not help him since Romney is answering questions put to him as is Bachmann and some others. She wants to pass the “mother of all repeal bills” like to get rid of the EPA. Will play well with GOP base but her description is way overblown for many independent voters (Oh, Ms. Bachmann: a Republican named Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist.)
5:24 pm: Cain markes argument that business mangerial skills is more inclusive than what he argues is exclusionary nature of the Obama administration.
5:23 pm: Bachmann defending the tea part claiming it’s made up of “disaffected Democrats.” I haven’t seen polls that state that and if it is a poll it is not polls. Tea Party is largely Republican and most Republicans will acknowledge as much. However, she does come over well. She goes for cheap applause line: “President Obama is a ONE! TERM! PRESIDENT!” Nice line but falls over her mission which is to deliver issue content.
5:22 p;m: Reaction so far: this is a serious bunch who is taking the debate serious. So far this does not resemble a talk show but a political debate. Biggest disappointment: Pawlenty, not boring but tiresome in recitation of talking points. Most impressive: Romney so far.
5:20 pm: Gingrich: “This campaign cannot be only about the Presidency.” Says need to pick up Congress seats to actually pass the legislation. Stresses need Senatorial majority. Realistic, good point.
5:18 pm: Romney is answering questions. Continues to come across quite well.
5:16 pm Tim Pawlenty doesn’t answer question. Second time. He is vomiting up his talking points. Not answering. Not participating. Poorly coached. Finally he does. Pawlenty running away from using phrase “Obamneycare.”
5:15 pm: Romney says he’d repeat Obama care, too. And on the first day he’d grant waiver to all 50 states with Obama care. Tries to differentiate his Massachusetts plan from Obama care. Romney comes across quite well on TV. As serious, thoughtful.
5:13 pm: Freelance journalist Sylvia Smith question about the “overreach” of health care legislation about defunding and repealing “Obama care.” Bachmann says she was the first to introduce fullscale repeal and if President “I will not rest until I repeal Obama care…This is a symbol and signature issue of President Obama during his entire tenure.” Cites figures about it job killing. Claims seniors hate Obamacare more than anyone.
5:12 pm Ron Paul can’t think of one thing Obama did to make the economy better. Again, this absolutist position won’t win over some independents. A little perspective is not a bad idea. So saving the car industry was a mistake?
5:12 pm: Rep. Michele Bachmann announces has formally filed her paperwork to run for President (no duh news story although she was exploring).
5:09 pm: Romney comment that Obama didn’t create the recession but made it worse will go over better with independents than claim Obama created the recession (talk show hosts implication and statements). Romney needs to end when he is supposed to. Trying to talk over moderator doesn’t score points.
5:07 p.m. Santorum on economy comes across as serious not at all like caricature of his many foes. Tikm Pawlenty doesn’t answer question about taxes but goes to talking points. He is reciting not answering. Talk about him being boring is meaningless. But he has not answer the moderator’s question.
5:01 pm: Opening statements. Some standouts Michele Bachmann notably notices her role as a foster parent. Newt Gingrich talks mentions the “Obama depression” — a typical Gingrich statement: overblown (we are not there yet). Herman Cain: “I am not a politician. I am a problem solver.”
TOP PHOTO courtesy CNN.
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.