If you like clean, predictable campaign story lines, the 2012 Republican contest isn’t going to be for you.
In the aftermath of Thursday night’s debate, the state of the race remains crowded and uncertain, with the fresh threat of new players stepping on stage to rewrite the script and bump already declared candidates off their marks.
The two-hour debate on Fox News brought accord on one issue at least: All eight candidates would walk away from a deficit reduction deal that would have a ten-to-one ratio between spending cuts and tax increases. All flatly opposed any tax increases.
But the Fox News debate featured much personal and ideological warfare, especially between Rep. Michelle Bachmann and fellow Minnesotan, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, as well as between Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. All this left relatively little time for attacks on ostensible front runner Mitt Romney.
For four minutes — an eternity in TV time — Bachmann and Pawlenty fought a rhetorical slugging match, with Bachmann likening Pawlenty to President Barack Obama and accusing him of advocating bigger government.
Pawlenty charged that Bachmann’s record of accomplishment in Congress “is nonexistent” and said “she has a record of misstating and making false statements.”
And he sourly mocked Bachmann for what he called her inability to stop Obama’s legislative agenda. “She led the effort against Obamacare, we got Obamacare ... If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you’re killing us,” he cracked.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich seemed vying for the honor of most irascible man on stage, scrapping with two Fox News questioners and snapping “Get rid of this secret phony business!” — a big applause line — as he called for abolishing the new special congressional committee on deficit reduction that House Speaker John Boehner helped create.
The night had its unexpected moments: Romney at one point offered a coherent defense of the individual health insurance mandate — as long as it is imposed by a state government — explaining clearly why it was needed to force “free riders” to pay for their medical care.
Santorum champions gay rights in Iran
Quirkiness reached kind of a high point when Santorum said, “I don’t apologize for the Iranian people being free for a long time” — under the autocratic Shah of Iran and his Savak secret police, whom he didn’t mention.
And Santorum gave, as a part of his indictment of the current Tehran regime, its oppression of gays, an unexpected argument from a man who hasn’t been a champion of gay rights in the United States.
In his tussle with Santorum, Paul explained that with Iran surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, it was “natural that they might want a (nuclear) weapon.”
Appearing in his first GOP debate, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman seemed to struggle to get heard, but late in the debate did give an argument for America’s need to become a manufacturing powerhouse again.
But even as the candidates took the stage Thursday night, a new contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was poised to jump into the race on Saturday in the crucial early primary state of South Carolina, a contest which John McCain won four years ago, a pivotal step on his way to winning the GOP nomination.
Perry's entry welcome to some GOP insiders
Perry’s move was one that party insiders had been expecting, and in some cases hoping for, since spring. Meanwhile GOP 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin revealed that she would visit the Iowa State Fair on Friday, the eve of the presidential straw poll in Ames.
The Ames event — while a chance for contenders to display their organizational muscle — has not proven to be a good predictor of who eventually will win the Republican nomination: only once in the past four contested GOP cycles has the Ames winner become the nominee.
Yet despite that, a lackluster showing at Ames on Saturday by Bachmann, Pawlenty or Santorum, would take the wind out of their campaigns.
Conversely, a big win in Ames Saturday might be just a sideshow to decisive events playing out hundreds of miles away in South Carolina and New Hampshire where Perry will make his 2012 campaign debut.
The traditional rule about the field being set by early summer of the year preceding the Iowa caucus does not apply this year. And given Obama’s 51 percent job disapproval rating, 2012 may be a more auspicious year for a Republican to run than it seemed a few months ago.
In this jostling race, not only is the field of contenders not yet set, but strategic questions remain unknown: Will all the GOP contenders — whether that number turns out be eight, nine or ten — compete in all the primaries and caucuses, will a few of them bypass Iowa or New Hampshire, or will they do a feint and then try to creep up and win one or both of those states?
Romney tangles with hecklers
For Romney, a more valuable moment than the debate may have come several hours earlier when he skirmished with hecklers at an event sponsored by the Des Moines Register.
One irate man shouted at Romney “What are you going to do to strengthen Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” adding in an adamant finale “— without cutting benefits!”
In his reply Romney said, “If you don’t like my answer, you can vote for someone else.” Then he said, “I’m not going to raise taxes, that’s my answer.”
The initial few seconds of Romney’s reaction gave an insight into him. While it didn’t quite rank with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 New Hampshire moment, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” as a revealing “grace under pressure” vignette, it did give Romney a chance to show he was quick with an answer.
And given the shouting and chanting from hostile crowd members, Romney seemed fairly incombustible, a valuable quality for a candidate.
In another apparently unscripted moment from the Des Moines scuffle, Romney told one of his adversaries in the crowd, “Corporations are people, my friend…. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”
And he was specific as to reforms he’s open to when it comes to curbing the growth of entitlement spending: Higher income people might receive less rapid growth in their retirement benefits and the age at which people become eligible for retirement benefits might be raised. The latter idea was proposed by the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission appointed by Obama last year.
Of course, Democrats were quick to make hay of Romney’s “corporations are people” line.
At a time when more than two-thirds of Americans think major corporations have “too much power,” according to an April Gallup survey, does Romney, a Harvard MBA and a former Bain Capital executive who prospered in the world of corporate restructurings and initial public offerings, appeal to the unemployed ex-middle manager in North Carolina or the jobless construction worker in Michigan? And if he doesn’t, which Republican does?