Bill Whalen

Debate Thoughts

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Orlando, let’s look at what’s at stake in the Sunshine State for the GOP hopefuls.

Four years ago, Florida was the supposed launching pad for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential run. “America’s Mayor” chose not to play in Iowa or New Hampshire. Instead, he put all of his eggs in one Floridian basket.

The reasoning: if Giuliani could prevail in winner-take-all Florida – its 2008 primary coming on the final Tuesday in January, just a week before the delegate-lucrative “Super Tuesday” (aka, “Tsunami Tuesday”, in which 41% of the GOP’s delegates at stake) – he’d leap-frog from back-of-the-pack to frontrunner and nominee-favorite in just one week’s time.

Of course, the strategy didn’t work for so swell for Giuliani (he finished a distant third in the Florida primary, behind John McCain and Mitt Romney, with only 14.7% of the vote; his campaign ended with a lone $59 million delegate) – nor, for that matter, the other Florida frontrunner in September 2007, Fred Thompson (who, like the nine candidates, was on the Fox News Channel on Thursday – albeit,pitching reverse mortgages to seniors).

But in the crazy quilt that is 2012’s early-voting states, Florida once again looks to be in a pivotal position, by virtue of batting fifth, not first, in the lineup.

Here’s why:

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann takes the Feb. 6 Iowa caucuses. Then, eight days later, New Hampshire does what it does best – giving someone else newfound life (Hilary/McCain 2008, Bill Clinton 1992, George H.W. Bush 1988, etc.). Under that scenario, the night’s big winner is Romney (a Granite State poll released this week giving the former Massachusetts governor a 27-point lead).

That takes us west, to the Feb. 18 Nevada caucuses – presumably, Romney Country. After that, what’s left of the GOP field heads south-southeast to the Feb. 28 South Carolina primary, presumably Perry Country.

And just 72 hours that (as South Carolina, like Nevada, votes on a Tuesday): the Florida primary.

As in 2008, the winner gets an enormous boost a week before the March 6 “Super Tuesday” (currently, 10 states). As in 2008, Florida could be the turning point in the race.

Here’s what we knew about the state of the state going into Thursday night’s debate:

  1. A Tango, Not a Group Dance. A Quinnipiac University survey released the morning of the debate has Perry ahead of Romney, 28%-22% — after them, it’s Sarah Palin at 8%. At some point, debate organizers will have to consider a higher bar for candidates to clear – usually, it’s 1% in five national polls – to qualify for stage access.
  2. Obama Underwater. The same Quinnipiac poll shows the President with an even larger “kick me” sign. Floridians give him a 57% disapproval rating. On August, polls had Obama and Romney deadlocked at 44%. Thursday’s polls had Romney leading, 47%-40% (Perry trails Obama, 42%-44%). Driving the train: Obama’s 57% disapproval rating among Floridians.
  3. Magic Bullet Theories. Team Romney figures the best way to make inroads with Florida seniors is to convince them that he’ll protect Social Security; Perry won’t. Team Perry figures Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare reform is no better than “Obama Lite”. How much the two candidates focused on intraparty negatives – on the same day when the Dow tanked, the Iranian president made a spectacle of himself at the UN, and Congress flirting with a government shutdown by month’s end – is an indicator the GOP’s maturity level and its ability to keep the focus on Obama’s liabilities.

As for the actual debate, some brief observations:

  1. The economic section of the debate is a bust. Perry rehashes his Texas record. Romney sticks to the safe ground of his 59-point plan. Herman Cain revisits “9-9-9”. Getting the sense that is the danger of multiple debates in a short period of time: overlap, redundancy.
  2. Before the debate, Perry told reporters he wouldn’t be a debate piñata yet again. Sure enough, he smacks Romney by pointing out an editorial difference (missing words) between hardcover and paperback versions of the ex-gov’s policy tome. Hard to see these two sharing a cab ride, much less a national ticket.
  3. It just wouldn’t be a presidential debate without a Newt Gingrich history lesson (that, and browbeating a debate panelist). Newt’s Orlando stroll down memory lane: working with the Reagan Administration in the early ‘80s. Sure, it shows the former Speaker is not just smart, but a witness to history. It also reminds voters he’s been in Washington a long time. Does that make him part of the solution, or part of the problem?
  4. Non-piñata redux: Perry pro-actively goes after Romney – this time, over whether the latter supports the Obama Education Department’s “Race to the Top” program. Is wielding a hatchet a smart strategy for a frontrunner?
  5. If you doubt that Fox is hankering for a fight, then count the number of times Perry or Romney’s asked to comment on some dreary aspect of . . . Rick Santorum’s record (rumor has it the former Pennsylvania senator was in this debate). This was written just seconds before Santorum hectors Perry with regard to . . .
  6. Illegal immigration: Perry distinguishes between border security and educating kids in his state (here’s a little known fact: of the 1 million under-18 kids added to Texas in the past decade, 95% were Hispanic). Some cheers, some boos. My take: it’s smart long-term politics as: (1) it shows a more humanitarian approach, a frequent problem for the GOP; (2) it allows the Texas guv to highlight his hands-on experience, as opposed to D.C.-based conservative theorists (build a fence, crack down on employers, etc.).
  7. Gary Johnson, as president, would trim 43% of the Pentagon’s budget. He’s also believes it’s time to legalize marijuana. Thus begging the question: how many stoned lawmakers would it take for such defense cuts to ever see the light of day?
  8. To rumors of bad blood between his camp and his predecessor in Austin, Perry says he talks to former President Bush (43) on a “relatively regular basis”. That doesn’t sound like love, does it?

Debate winners: (1) Romney came prepared for Perry’s barbs; (2) Johnson, for best one-liner (“my neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than the current administration . . .”).

Debate losers: Bachmann, for once again winding up as a debate wallflower; Google’s “time’s-up” sound-effect, as bad as the doorbell chime at the last Fox debate.

Any chance of simply turning off the candidate’s mikes?

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