Yesterday’s Republican debate was a frustrating thing for just about anyone to watch — except, perhaps, for @BarackObama (our President’s twitter interns), who seemed to be gloating afterwards at all the weak performances. The highlights and lowlights of the debate probably came courtesy of our friends in Minnesota — with the highlight being the hour-long brawl between Tim Pawlenty and Michelle Bachman and the lowlight the moderator’s decision to ask Michelle Bachman if she would be “submissive” to her husband as President — though her trumpeting of the “Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act” comes in a close second.
But I wanted to take a moment and comment on how the two candidates most connected to Utah — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — did in the Republican Presidential debate last night. They entered the debate in two different places and with two different goals. Romney was the clear frontrunner and was looking to consolidate his status. Huntsman, in contrast, was the no-name looking to introduce himself and set himself apart as the reasonable, experienced guy in a weak field.
Romney did pretty well, though it would have been hard for him to mess this one up. He stayed on his message, which was that President Obama was simply in over his head when it came to the economy and Romney was the guy who could take it over. In fact, I thought one of Romney’s best moments came when he pointed out that, if voters were looking for someone with real world, business executive experience, they had to choose between him and Herman Cain . . . it was a smart line, especially given Cain’s performance. Romney also stayed with his consistent message about his healthcare reform history — that Romneycare was a Massachusetts solution to Massachusetts’ problems and doesn’t have the constitutional issues that plague Obamacare. Frankly, it’s a weak response, but probably the best he can do. And the Tenth Amendment always seems to play well these days. Romney was also helped by the moderater’s somewhat puzzling insistence that surely, if the a federal program is constitutionally suspect a similar state program is necessarily suspect as well. With all the constitutional politics of late, I thought that we were all clear on this point by now . . . .
Huntsman made his introduction, but the audience didn’t really respond. Overall, I thought he did OK. He was, by and large, the candidate that those of us who have followed him expected him to be. His answers were satisfactory, though he was quite vague on his plans for the economy — not good in light of the events of the last few weeks. But though they were satisfactory, none of his answers seemed particularly inspired. He looked best when asked about serving as President Obama’s ambassador and his support for civil unions. His closing statement was also pretty good. He looked worst responding to questions about the economy and illegal immigration. He set himself apart as the clear moderate in the Republican field (though definitely to the right of where he was in Utah), but the audience wasn’t impressed. Overall, given the weak performances of the other candidates, I thought that Huntsman probably finished second to Mitt.
The news out of Utah this morning is that Romney is . . . well, embarrassing seems to be an apt word . . . Huntsman in the homeland. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that 71 percent of Utah Republicans self-classify as Romney supporters as opposed to only 13 percent of Utah Republicans that support Huntsman. As others have noted, it will be hard for Huntsman to gain traction nationwide while he’s losing this badly to his main primary opponent in his own state. Furthermore, it’s bad news for Huntsman that Romney seems to be getting stronger as he goes along. Huntsman’s best chance in this race, it always seemed to me, was to capitalize on the fact that the Republican field was extraordinarily weak, with no clear standout candidate. When it started, Romney was the frontrunner only by default. The weak field gave Huntsman the real opportunity to have voters who didn’t know him well give him a hard look as they searched for a “serious” Republican candidate with potential to win. Huntsman’s best argument to Republicans who don’t like him has been: ”If you’re looking for a guy to beat Obama, it’s me — and only me. The others are just too far right to do it.” But with Romney is looking stronger all the time, and Obama taking a beating on the economy (Romney’s best issue), that line probably isn’t playing as well right now — though that could change.
Still, I think you have to look at this field (pre-Rick Perry) and say to yourself — if it’s not Romney, its Huntsman. I just can’t envision any other of the other candidates being taken seriously, especially after last night. This probably ensures that Huntsman remains in the field for a good while longer. He’ll have other chances and he’s not done in the race yet. The more people see of Huntsman, the more they’ll like him, especially in comparison to the other candidates. Perry’s entry into the race certainly pushes Huntsman back to third, but Perry himself has some problems. So, the Utahns (or, perhaps better stated, Utah-connected candidates) will remain front and center in this one for a while. Should be fun to watch.
Here are the video highlights: