I haven't watched much of the debates so far, and most of the pundits I read are suggesting that I didn't miss much. They all seem agreed that Thursday night's South Carolina debate was the best so far. Helping a lot was that there were only four men on the stage.
Newt Gingrich: a very strong debater. Clearly the best in the field, and the closest thing we have to somebody reared in the British parliamentary system, which is what we need (quick on the feet). Newt has a sense of "good humor" about him. He is relaxed and poised, and gives incredibly substantive answers. For example, his five-point answer on illegal immigration was very impressive. On the downside, deflecting the questions about his poor moral conduct in his marriages with nothing but pure outrage at the questions may work for a moment, but only for a moment. Until somebody realizes, "Yes, but you didn't answer the question..."
My biggest fear with Newt: the issue in the campaign is so easy to make about...Newt, not the incumbent.
Mitt Romney: had a very solid night. I felt myself quite reassured that a President Romney would probably be just fine. Getting to that point will prove the problem. Romney seems very relaxed and capable, and continually came off as quite gracious to his opponents. That's a Presidential quality we've been lacking for the last three years, you may recall. Romneycare will continue to be a bane (pun intended) to his candidacy, as Rick Santorum effectively pointed out repeatedly. Why he didn't just disown the thing early on and say he's re-thought things baffles me. Hearing him continually defend it is tiresome. But all in all, he gave a strong performance.
My biggest fear with Romney: Lack of enthusiasm and groundswell among the electorate, suggesting that if he cannot close the deal with Republican voters, he will not close the deal with the broader electorate and he loses. Alternatively, he really is a chameleon, a Massachusetts moderate, and turns out to be a disappointing President: i.e., as Newt puts it, a "wonderful manager of American decline."
Rick Santorum: (disclosure: I'm a Rick supporter). Santorum was strong on substance, weak on optics. He's in a tough position. He needs to distinguish himself from Newt and Mitt as strongly as possible and present himself as the alternative. But that's a complicated thing. To my mind he lacked the very thing needed, and I mentioned it with respect to Newt: good humor. Rick rarely smiled. He never had a light moment. He was just... Intense. Which made him look... Tense. Which is all-too-easily mistaken for... Angry. I suffer from just this problem myself, so I sympathize. But the contrast drawn between himself and Mitt and Newt became exactly the one he didn't want. Those guys are cool, relaxed, confident, comfortable in their own skin, and all-around amiable. Rick seemed by contrast insecure, defensive, and not amiable at all. That will not play to the voters well, I'm afraid.
My biggest fear with Rick: None, as I'm fairly convinced (sadly) he will not compete much beyond South Carolina.
Ron Paul: All the pundits are lauding Paul for his strongest debate yet, which makes me think, "What!? The others were WORSE?" He didn't talk much about foreign policy, but he had enough dog whistles to get the point across. We can solve all of our insolvencies (Medicaid and Medicare included) if we "stop all our overseas spending." He said it multiple times. That's code for: military operations. Yes, folks, if we just bring everyone home and trim a trillion off the budget in the first year of his Presidency (yeah, right), we'll be fiscally solvent again. Let me be blunt: this is lunacy. And the fact that a significant portion of the electorate continues to vote for these fantasies says more about the state of our duress than it does about the genius of Ron Paul. That's the substance. As far as optics, he giggles like an affable, half-crazy grandpa. No gravitas whatsoever, and I cannot believe that people give hard-earned money to this guy's repeated presidential campaigns. A fool and his money are soon parted, indeed. While Grandpa Ron makes off just fine...
My biggest fear with Ron Paul: Ron Paul. No, seriously. That his ego is so inflated, his love for his country so shallow, that he takes off on a third-party run, thus subjecting us to another Obama term. Which, by the way, we quite literally cannot afford. I heard that from... Ron Paul.
Prediction: Newt gives Mitt a serious run for his money, both in South Carolina and beyond, but Romney ends up the victor. And, hopefully, a much stronger candidate because of the stiff competition.