Bill Whalen

Debate Thoughts

It’s early in the week, but so far the prize for bad timing goes to The State, South Carolina’s leading newspaper.

On Sunday morning, the paper’s editorial board came out with an endorsement of Jon Huntsman. Twelve hours later, Huntsman was leaking news that he was dropping out of the Republican presidential hunt the following a.m.

This happens every four years – not the can-we-have-a-mulligan endorsement, but a candidate adopted as the media’s mascot, only to have that campaign end prematurely (in this case, the more intriguing question isn’t what happens next to Huntsman, but instead his telegenic daughters).

This was Jon Huntsman’s story in 2012 – media hype that didn’t translate to votes – the same collective fate as . . . John Edwards in 2004, John McCain in 2000, Bob Kerrey in 1992, Bruce Babbitt in 1988, Gary Hart in 1984 and Mo Udall in 1976.

And, I suppose, Pat Paulsen . . .

The one exception to the rule: Barack Obama – and that’s because Obama, in 2008, had something the aforementioned for the most part didn’t: better finances, a winning strategy, and a message broadly marketed to his party’s base rather than narrowly tailored to the good-government crowd at Harvard’s Institute of Politics (Cambridge being, for this generation’s political also-rans, what Paris was for exiled Russian aristocracy).

With Huntsman out of the race, that left five participants front and center at Monday’s Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach.

Some thoughts:

  1. A quick rehash of the Bain Capital flap, followed by Rick Perry calling on Romney to release his income taxes. Does one sense an accelerating of this election – Romney being jumped on potential vulnerabilities (his company, his wealth) about eight months ahead of schedule? How long before an attack on his faith?
  2. “ . . . South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration.” Probably should have been Perry’s signature sound bite along – not just this debate. Not sure if it were have changed things, but definitely his moment yet after 15 debates in terms of connecting with an audience.
  3. Gingrich aces the 99er question – connecting unemployment compensation to job-training, pointing out that 99 weeks is the equivalent of an associate degree. This, after Santorum gives a forgettable, long-winded answer (lots of Washington-speak). If you combined the best two conservatives offer – Gingrich’s smarts, Santorum’s smoother delivery – and pooled their votes, Romney would have a bigger problem on the right. But this conservative house is divided.
  4. If you have a moment, watch the exchange between Gingrich and Juan Williams (look for it around the 1:45 mark) over the ex-Speaker’s past comments on kids doing janitorial work and African-Americans demanding jobs, not food stamps. Loudest applause I’ve heard so far in any debate.

A bad night for: Romney. His answer on when/if he’ll release his taxes (brought up twice during the debate) shows a trait he needs to shed in a head-to-head with Obama – his tendency, when pressed, to seek harbor in cautious, hedging words and process.

A good night for: Gingrich. He won the debate. May not win on Saturday, but he won the night, imo.

An even better night for: Huntsman. Hard to believe he’ll miss these debates.

Next GOP debate: Thursday, 8 p.m., in Charleston (two days before the actual primary), CNN/Southern Republican Leadership Conference co-hosting. Let’s see if the South Carolina landscape looks any different by then.

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