Debateable performances

On Monday, September 12, 2011, CNN teamed up with the Tea Party Express to host the fifth debate for Republican presidential candidates. But unlike debates of both parties in the past, the Republican Party is still waiting for a clear debate winner and a primary frontrunner.

Eight candidates took the stage in Tampa, Fla.: Governor Rick Perry, Governor Mitt Romney, Governor Jon Huntsman, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Congressman Ron Paul, Senator Rick Santorum, former Speaker Newt Ginrich, and Mr. Herman Cain. Each still had significant progress to make in order to secure the N.H. primary and had everything to lose.

The two media-named “frontrunners,” Perry and Romney, have been given significant response time during the previous four debate, however this debate evened the playing field in terms of time allocation, for what seems the first time, during this primary season. The sponsorship of the Tea Party Express largely switched up the atmosphere of this debate.

Perry and Romney began typical “frontrunner” back and forth early in the debate over social security. After Perry’s naming the social security program a “Ponzi scheme” last week, Romney took the lead in pointing out to viewers that “The real question is, does Gov. Perry continue to believe that social secutiry should not be a federal program?” while Perry ensured that it was a “slam dunk guarantee” for those on and nearing social secutiry benefits.

The back and forth resulted in no clear winner and only further demonstrated what has been a growing divide in the Republican Party. And though other candidates were asked who they agreed with on social security refom, Santorum stepped up to the plate to lighten the mood and said, “The question is, ‘Who’s with me?’” (though he wasn’t kidding).

Gingrich gave himself a much needed boost and a little credibility after a disappointing summer of campaign staff collapses and said “I helped balance the budget for four straight years. This is not a theory… we can balance the budget.”

Others agreed that spending needed to be cut and jobs must be created, but in a variety of ways. Romney proposed the expansion of energy development in America to create jobs; Paul proposed the cutting of the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, and military spending; and Santorum proposed more manufacturing and incentives to manufacture in America.

Bachmann led again, as she did during last week’s debate, in healthcare by pointing out that repealing Obamacare isn’t going to fix the problem, but that it is a massive piece of legislation that requires a more intensive repealing plan. Bachmann said, “If you could solve Obamacare with an executive order, any president could do it and any president could undo it.”

So who won?

In reality, not a single candidate. But each, with the exception of Perry and Paul, made progress in polishing their message for the American voters.

Romney remained strong on social security, though his argument with Perry last night may slightly blemish voter opinion of him. Though he certainly won’t see dramatic losses because of his almost childish behavior, he needs to learn to keep his cool (especially after videos of him yelling at voters in early August) in order to preserve his candidacy.

Santorum’s convictions on parental rights and immigration resonate well with conservative voters as he continues to affirm that “American exceptionalism” is alive and can be preserved. As a Tea Party candidate, this debate gave him an opportunity to really connect with the audience as well as have air time.

Bachmann proved last night that she is continuing to refine her image. Her campaign is working to gain credibility and legitimacy, but she’s going to have to keep presenting herself well in order to retain the growing support she’s drawn over the past few months.

Gingrich’s lack of steady campaign staff and at times questionable history will likely hold him back from gaining any real momentum. But his willingness to call out the media’s inappropriately pitting candidate’s together in last week’s debate and his insight from his time as Speaker of the House this week will keep him in the race for now. In order to continue his candidacy long-term, Gingrich will have to continue to perform well and refrain from taking unnecessarily controversial stances.

Paul’s typically semi-isolationist views and social stances make him intriguing to the youth and libertarian vote, but he needs to polish off some of this other stances. During Monday night’s debate, his brash and cold statements for those without healthcare were certainly disconcerning for some of these voting blocks.

Huntsman has shaped himself as a very moderate and viable alternative to Obama for Democrats who are not pleased with their general election candidate. He’s painted himself as science-friendly and ready to remove American troops from the Middle East, both of which are incredibly enticing to young voters. If he continues on his current trend, he may be able to gain momentum. But while he looks like a good general election candidate, he needs to convince the Republican Party that he’s a better option than Perry and Romney.

Cain’s political inexperience has thus far prevented him from gaining traction, though his business background could prove helpful in fixing the economy. He’s going to need to find a way to convince voters that his 9-9-9 tax proposal will work, which he failed to do again in this debate.

Perry began late and has had little opportunity thus far, other than these two debates, to really demonstrate his ability to turn the country around. He’s failed to do so, and while he’s been generating great polling numbers in line with Romney’s, his debate performance has been less than perfect. His continually defending his executive order to mandate the HVP vaccine in Texas, and by firmly standing by it, he’s distancing himself from liberty-minded voters.

Though the primary season is in full swing, we’ve yet to see a clear frontrunner. In addition to the continuing of building essential support on the ground in early primary states, especially N.H., candidates will have to begin to step up their debate performances to separate themselves from the rest of the crowd.


Allie Bedell can be contacted at


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