September 23, 2011

Romney-Perry main event fizzles

The gloves are off. Almost.
It's not exactly an exploding fireball of death for Rick Perry, but last night he did himself no favors.  Then again neither did Mitt Romney in a night that seemed just a little bit disjointed.  Instead of one debate I saw two distinct scenarios.  It was a like a boxing match with an under card.

The main event was the inevitable Perry versus Romney showdown - not exactly Ali-Frasier - but still it should have been big.  The under card was everybody else in a free for all that targeted each other and those in the Main Event.  What could have been a good debate was largely a mess, but there will be some tangible outcomes from it.

Firstly let me quickly address the non-participant portion of the mess.  Having 10 people on stage is a difficult situation at best.  At 2 hours long if we subtract 20 minutes for commercial breaks that's a total of 100 minutes or 10 minutes of theoretical face time per participant.  That's not much, particularly if there are a lot of questions. 10 questions means one minute per question per participant. That already puts you at the level of talking points instead of detailed position discussions, and that's really what's needed to find substantive differences between similar but not nearly identical candidates.

I understand that Fox co-sponsored with Google to attach some sort of coolness-hip-21st-century-technological-engagement-social-media-web-youtube factor. I get that.  But the graphs they kept putting up, while not meaningless, only detracted from the flow and focus of the debate, not to mention the time issue I noted above.

Getting back to the debate itself, let me start with the under card - the main event always comes at the end.  While there were some interesting exchanges between the candidates there were a few key takeaways for me.  It seems in the analysis afterwards Bachmann is being run down as being out of it.  I think she did okay.  Gary "who now?" Johnson got in the line of the night about his neighbor's dog having a more shovel-ready work than Obama did, but he seems like at best he can claw his way out of the afterthought category simply by not being visible enough in the press.

The biggest take-away I can find from the under card was that while everyone did reasonably well and I think the numbers might tighten a bit for all of them versus Romney and Perry, this was not a game changer for anyone except Jon Huntsman.  I don't think he did anything exceptionally well and as a candidate outside of much of the GOP mainstream he doesn't stand a chance.  But he did surge in a New Hampshire poll and it seems to have granted him a disproportionate share of face time relative to a number of candidates who from a conservative perspective deserve a lot more attention than he.  Huntsman is not a conservative and fits the RINO mold in a number of ways.  However it seems like he's become the latter day Republican media darling like John McCain 2000.  He's at odds with the base.  That serves liberals and it may also serve some form of establishment Republicans.

Indeed it may also serve Rick Perry. It does not serve conservatives.  I'd like to see Huntsman fade away.  There needs to be less than 10 people on the stage during a debate (not only 2 or 3 just yet, but less than 10).  Huntsman is superfluous to the debates and should just go away, but I predict he won't based on the current face time continuum.

The main event was supposed to be a slug fest.  Perry was supposed to start fighting back against everyone, but he was smart to focus on Romney.  By doing so he helped lock in the tier structure of top tier versus second tier and he's in the top tier.  But while the two leaders spent as much time as possible trying to focus on each other, I think it ultimately did neither one of them any good.  While it wasn't a crash and burn for either candidate it got a bit tiresome.  There were real issues to debate and perhaps because of the format, anyone looking for a knockout punch was bound to be disappointed. Instead they were treated to a heavyweight tilt that was 12 rounds of throwing non-impactful jabs at each other. In the absence of a TKO, there was also an absence of a decision winner.  It was a draw.  Romney seemed more polished and precise but he's still got that Romneycare and flip-flop issue hanging over his head. So after a 12 round battle of jabs and no decision, what did either man accomplish?  

Not much.  The more times that happens the more I suspect the rest of the pack, or some of the rest of the pack will draw closer.  Tier 1 and Tier 2 will eventually merge.  It's too early to tell what that might look like.  But rather than this becoming a two man race, last night was a small step towards allowing more candidates an opportunity to get back into the ring with a shot at the title.

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