Same Bite, Different Bark

Of the things worth noting about the first major Republican presidential debate in June, the absence of Texas Governor Rick Perry from the stage ranks high up there. With Perry set to announce his presidential bid on Saturday in South Carolina, his absence again upstaged the other GOP presidential contenders at last night's debate in Ames, Iowa.

But the spectacle nonetheless had its moments.

During the debate, hosted by Fox News, moderators focused unrelentlessly on the perceived weaknesses of each of the major candidates. They pressed Mitt Romney on his Massachusetts health-care reforms and anti-abortion bona fides, pushed Tim Pawlenty on his unrealistic economic-growth targets, and questioned Michele Bachmann's qualifications for the presidency. On health care, Romney gave his standard answer: The right to implement an individual mandate belongs to the states -- not the federal government. Bachmann held up her willingness to fight as her chief qualification, "I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress," she explained. "People are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting."

The debate clocked in at two hours, but by the end of the first, a few things were clear. First, Tim Pawlenty is unprepared for the big leagues. His mild attacks on Bachmann -- "[I]t is an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent." -- were matched with blistering assaults on his conservative credentials. Bachman retorted: "[Y]ou praised the unconstitutional individual mandates and called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance that the government would mandate ... You said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me." Bachmann emphasized that the United States needs a president "who stands firm on their convictions," and while Pawlenty could shake his head at the accusations, he could never find an adequate response. He flailed -- and thus failed -- to define himself to the crowd.

If Pawlenty can't manage to survive a debate where he's had plenty of time to prepare, I can't believe that'll survive much longer. The polls, which show him at the bottom off the ladder, seem to bear this out.

Second, it's still true that Mitt Romney looks and sounds "presidential." More than any other candidate, he appears comfortable in discussing policy, even if his ideas -- support for the Cut, Cap, Balance bill, and a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage -- are nearly indistinguishable from those of everyone else on stage. Regardless, he has yet to shake his moderate instincts and image, with the legacy of being the competent former governor of a liberal state. For example, when asked if he would have vetoed the recent debt-ceiling deal, Romney dodged the question with an attack -- "I'm not going to eat Obama's dog-food." Whereas Bachmann announced her willingness to let the federal government default on its obligations, Romney couldn't bring himself to endorse that level of Tea Party radicalism.

Even still, it's important to note the extent to which there is little disagreement between the candidates on policy. For instance, when one host -- Fox News anchor Bret Baier -- asked the candidates if they would reject a budget deal that gave $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases, every person on stage raised their hand in agreement -- to the shock of Baier and the other questioners -- that they would.

Although the action of the debate was focused around Romney, Bachmann and Pawlenty, the other candidates were hardly silent. Former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman doubled down on being a moderate, standing by his previous support for civil unions: "I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality." He defended his work in the Obama administration: "If you love your country, you serve her."

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who spent most of the debate on the periphery of the stage and the conversation, attacked the strict federalism of Bachmann and others: "Our country is based on morals and laws, and there are states the things can't do." Ron Paul burnished his paleoconservative credentials with jeremiads against U.S. foreign intervention and the Federal Reserve, and Herman Cain defended his knowledge of policy, while trying to lighten the atmosphere, "America has got to learn how to take a joke."

On policy, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't say much, but he did rail against the questioners for their "gotcha" questions, especially after he was asked about the viability of his campaign, which lost most of its staff in June. "I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing 'Mickey Mouse games.'"

On the whole, you could say that Romney "won" the debate -- he escaped the tough questioning of the hosts and maintained the aura of being the inevitable nominee. But it's hard to say that his win matters, since we're all waiting for Rick Perry. And at this moment, Perry looks like the candidate to beat. More than any other Republican on the national stage, he fits the GOP ideal: a hawkish, radical conservative, without Romney's history of ideological heterodoxy and general human decency, or Bachmann's reputation for extremism. He'll have the approval of the Republican base, and as governor of one of the country's largest states. the gravitas necessary to take on the president of the United States.

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