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CNN National Security Debate Revealing…

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The CNN National Security Debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls, held at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, Tuesday, November 22, featured several important and revealing distinctions between the candidates. Moderator Wolf Blitzer did a superb job moderating the debate, giving each candidate roughly equal time (even Ron Paul had more than 89 seconds to make his positions known!) and, in several instances, followed up with candidates who didn’t answer questions directly by interjecting, “Just to be precise…” and attempted to pin down candidates on the questions. The event was held among members of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, many of whom asked candidates questions directly.

One topic of particular interest was the candidates’ positions on cuts to military spending: the United States spends more money on their military than the next 17 countries combined, however several candidates came out against any meaningful cuts, and some candidates came out against any cuts whatsoever (most of the “cuts” which have been proposed are not, in fact, “cuts” but are instead reductions in the pace of growth: America’s Defense budget has about doubled in just the past nine years).

If you ask any insurance executive the best way to sell insurance, they’ll tell you in one word: fear. Scare the customer and they’ll buy. Many of the candidates in this debate were selling insurance, of the United States military variety.

There were some radical positions on display by the candidates. Here, then, is a summary:

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich exhibited none of the animosity towards moderator Wolf Blitzer that he has previously unleashed against debate moderators, and presented himself well. Some of his positions, on the other hand, were surprising in some instances, disturbing in others, and flat out incorrect on at least one.

The first question of the debate was asked by Edwin Meese, former Attorney General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan, who asked whether the Patriot Act should be extended. Mr Gingrich was the first candidate to field the question, and he came out in favor of the Patriot Act and further stated he would expand it, again making a distinction between “crimes” (which should be dealt with by criminal courts) and “terrorism” (which should be dealt with however the government wishes to deal with it, which in prior debates has included torture and secret tribunals under Mr Gingrich’s vision). The most obvious problem with this notion that the protections of the Constitution do not apply to those the government deems “terrorists” is of course that the government could, at will, declare anyone a “terrorist” and thereby absolve the government of the restraints placed on it by the Constitution: the government becomes judge, jury and executioner in secret and without any restraint. That is not, of course, an example of the “rule of law”. Other countries have experimented with secret courts and arbitrary removal of citizen’s rights. It hasn’t gone well for the people of those same countries.

Wolf Blitzer, smartly, asked Texas Representative Ron Paul to comment next – smartly, because it brought out the enormous contrast between Paul and Gingrich. Ron Paul made a passionate argument against the Patriot Act, stating liberty needn’t be sacrificed for security and that the court system had worked in cases like the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma. Mr Gingrich responded by pointing out that Mr McVeigh had succeeded in killing 168 people, and that the government should have the ability to pre-empt such attacks. Dr Paul responded by pointing out that each household could have a police officer and cameras placed inside it for the purposes of reducing child abuse and wife battering, and that a police state might reduce crime but in the process the government becomes the criminals. It was a telling exchange, and showed the vast differences between the candidates.

On the issue of oil, Newt Gingrich claimed that a different energy policy would allow the United States to produce enough oil to make up for all of Iran’s production and that as a result, global oil prices would plummet. Such an approach would require the United States to increase its oil production by about 50% and would require decades (and as one questioner pointed out, the United States hasn’t purchased oil from Iran for thirty years).

Mr Gingrich’s positions, evolved from his prior positions now that he is running for President (see too Mitt Romney for another example of positions of plasticity), are always conveyed with authority and plenty of (sometimes obscure) references and name dropping, but Newt Gingrich did a solid job of presenting those positions in this debate.

Overall score: A

Herman Cain

Former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain had another poor showing, as he has in past debates on any foreign policy question. Here was a debate entirely focused on foreign policy, with nary a chance to trumpet his “9-9-9” tax plan. There was nothing in Mr Cain’s performance in this debate which can be expected to reverse his sliding poll numbers (most recently at 14% nationally[PDF]).

Herman Cain never seemed at ease during the debate, and he had that “deer caught in the headlights” look, formerly so familiar on Rick Perry’s face, on multiple occassions.

Often, Mr Cain answers foreign policy questions by saying he will listen to other people and rely upon their judgement. It’s good to get opinions, particularly on matters as important as foreign policy. But it is also important to convey the notion that, while you will seek out advice, you are the ultimate decision maker.

Rarely did Mr Cain display any of the incredible charisma he once beamed at the audience.

Overall score: C-

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul was easily the most differentiated candidate of all those present. Coming out strongly against the Patriot Act (“The Patriot Act is unpatriotic!”), the “war on drugs” (“Another war we ought to cancel!”; “I think the war on drugs is a total failure”; “Federal government is going in there and over-riding state laws”; “I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties”) and in favor of Congressional approval for acts of war (which including a rebuttal to Mr Santorum, who kept talking about the “war on terror” – Mr Paul pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not a nation or an enemy or a war).

Ron Paul, for once, got some air time, and it was an excellent decision on the part of CNN producers, because the contrast was, at times, shocking. On the issue of the extension of the Patriot Act, Mr Gingrich’s argument that pre-emptive and extra-judicial actions should be permitted the government was smartly rebutted by Dr Paul’s plea that liberty need not be sacrificed for security, calling on the Founding Fathers in the process. On the issue of defense cuts, Mr Paul put the other candidates to shame, pointing out the “cuts” were only reductions in the speed of increased spending, not real cuts.

Overall, it was Mr Paul’s strongest debate to date, and even amidst the deeply establishment Republican crowd, Ron Paul drew cheers and applause for his anti-war, anti-interventionist positions. With Paul in a dead heat in Iowa, his performance in this debate may put him on top with the anti-Romney crowd in the state.

Overall score: A

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the hawkish approach, bemoaning defense cuts, favoring intervention in Iran and backing Israel by stating his first foreign visit as President will be to Israel.

Where Mitt Romney has been playing it relatively slow and steady, and avoiding engaging the other candidates since the Las Vegas entanglements with Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman seemed to get under Mr Romney’s skin on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan.

Mr Romney is in a difficult bind, despite being the “front runner” in most media circles: essentially three quarters of Republican voters want a candidate for President who is not Mitt Romney, and it doesn’t appear as though anything Mr Romney says or does, or the other candidates’ rises and falls, have any impact on that cruel fact.

Mitt Romney’s best chance to win the nomination, it seems, is to split the conservative votes among the other contenders. But again, here Mr Romney is in a bind, because the voters seems to flock en masse to the most prominent anti-Romney candidate of the moment (currently Newt Gingrich). Do his performances at these debates win him any new voters? Probably not, according to the polls. So for Mitt Romney, the debates are something to get through without any obvious gaffes. That he did.

Overall score: B-

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry, while still occassionally tongue-tied and cursed with the intellectual gravitas of Pauly Shore on a bad day, nonetheless has now marked his third consecutive debate without a major embarrassment. Mr Perry’s policy ideas still seem half-baked (as in not really fully formed, and certainly not fully articulated), like his plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria (to which Mitt Romney replied by pointing out the Syrian government is not attacking its people with aircraft but that they do have 5,000 tanks and therefore perhaps a “no-drive” zone would be more appropriate), or his solution to Pakistan, which seemed to be some concept of creating a trade zone among several countries and forcing them to work together.

Rick Perry continues to seem like the only kid on a stage of men, but at least it’s no longer so painful to watch, almost to the point that one feels a bit sorry for the man. It’s clear Mr Perry is much more comfortable speaking one-on-one, and he often turns to whichever candidate is beside him to address a point directly to another human, rather than the wider audience. But Mr Perry is at best a puppet with deep-pocketed string masters, and it shows. His greatest accomplishment in this race may be that he has held on as long as he has – his poll numbers are certainly stagnant.

Overall score: C+ (this is an “A” on the Perry Bell Curve).

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, it is hard to believe now, was once considered a front-runner, after narrowly defeating Ron Paul in the Ames, Iowa straw poll. Since then, her poll numbers have plummeted, and she regularly polls in the low single digits. What’s a candidate to do?

Make odd statements and appear increasingly like a fringe candidate as you move towards the totalitarian territory where Rick Santorum lives, that’s what.

Some select statements:

“We won the peace in Iraq.” Yes. Iraq. That bastion of peaceful tranquility.

“Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists.” This in support of reinstating torture tactics against suspects who have never been formally charged and whose revelations while being tortured are of little to no use (CNN has an interesting fact-check on this statement).

“…most recent decision he [President Obama] made to cancel the Keystone Pipeline.” That pipeline has been delayed, not canceled, by the Obama administration.

Ms Bachmann, in short, did nothing to distinguish herself, and a few things to embarrass herself.

Overall score: D

Jon Huntsman

Former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman had a strong night, in a debate focused on topics he’s most familiar with as a former Ambassador.

Mr Huntsman made well-articulated points on China and Pakistan, and at one point engaged with Mitt Romney on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan (Mr Romney wants troops to remain longer in that country; Mr Huntsman wants to bring them home but leave a small contingent behind).

All Mr Huntsman’s marbles are on New Hampshire, and unfortunately for him, he is not polling in the top two there (positions held by Mr Romney and Mr Paul).

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum opined that people should be treated differently (read: more harshly) depending upon the religious beliefs they hold, by way of applying different standards to Muslims in security screenings and other state intrusions. Hitler, too, believed people of different religious beliefs should be treated differently. On the other hand, The Founding Fathers of the United States, most notably did not, enshrining freedom of belief in the Constitution. Mr Santorum, throughout these debates, has never shied away from the more fascist side of the spectrum, and later applauded Lincoln for “trampling on the civil rights” of Americans. It is deeply reassuring that Mr Santorum has never polled much above 1% – his positions on foreign policy, and his almost viceral disgust for civil liberties, is truly frightening.

Overall score: F (The world becomes a safer and saner place once Mr Santorum retires from politics).

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4 Things to Watch For in CNN National Security Debate of GOP Presidential Hopefuls…

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Tomorrow’s (Tuesday, November 22, 2011) debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC, and produced by CNN, will focus on National Security. Here, then, are four things to watch for in this, the final debate of November:

  1. Can Herman Cain stop the bleeding?

    Former National Restaurant Assocation lobbyist Herman Cain has seen his support plummet dramatically: the latest CNN poll [PDF] shows support for Mr Cain down almost half between October and November (from 25% to 14%). Is there any way for Mr Cain to stop the slide, or reverse the trend? There are really just three options for Herman Cain: hope one of his rivals (most likely former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) sees a substantial drop and further hope to fill the void that leaves, or hope the voting public’s memories are short and both the allegations of sexual harassment, and perhaps more importantly Mr Cain’s seemingly shallow grasp of issues outside the realm of his proposed tax plan, are forgotten, or make a bold move and attempt to recapture the lead. Notably, security/foreign policy has been a real weakness for candidate Cain.

  2. Will Texas Governor Rick Perry continue his largely gaffe-free recent debate performances?

    In the two debates since his now-famous “oops” moment in Michigan, Rick Perry has performed without any overt failures and less of struggles to articulate himself which were a hallmark of every prior debate. Still, with just 12% support in that same CNN poll, a history of heavy spending as Governor of Texas and a platform he has yet to fully articulate, it may be an awfully steep hill for Mr Perry to climb (and Perry is polling around 3% in New Hampshire, according to Bloomberg).

  3. Can Texas Representative Ron Paul, currently in a four-way tie for the lead in Iowa and in a distant second place in New Hampshire, change the perception of his security policies?

    Virtually every media account of Dr Paul’s foreign and national security policies includes the word “isolationist”. Will Ron Paul be able to successfully argue that the presence of the United States’ military in 150 countries around the globe, and the interventionist foreign policy of the past 60 years, is a cause of threats to America’s security? Will Mr Paul’s message (effectively, “If we go to other people’s sandboxes and kick down their sand castles, they will want to come to our sandbox and kick down our sand castles”) resonate with voters in the midst of six far more “hawkish” candidates (former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s views are similar to Ron Paul’s; the rest of the candidates are all in favor of interventionism and nation building, particularly former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann).

  4. Will other candidates label Newt Gingrich a “flip-flopper” in light of his new web site?

    The New York Times published an article about Mr Gingrich’s new web site, on which the candidate explains his reasons for changing his position on seven issues (among them, the personal mandate for health care, which Mr Gingrich used to be in favor of but now considers unconstitutional). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been the favored target of “flip-flopping” accusations to date; will the candidates attempt to bestow Mr Gingrich with similar accusations?

The debate begins at 8pm ET on CNN. (Note: for the complete schedule of upcoming Republican debates, as well as links to all previously aired debates, visit 2012 Election Central).

5 Things to Watch For in Tonight’s GOP Debate…

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The latest in the long series of debates between hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination takes place at 5pm ET tonight, Saturday November 19th at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa (live stream available here). Here are five things to keep an eye on during the debate:

  1. Does Herman Cain have something to offer beyond “9-9-9”?

    Former lobbyist Herman Cain (who, interestingly, supported Mitt Romney in the 2008 race) has shown great appeal with voters when a question can be answered by working in his “9-9-9” tax plan, but has seemed far out of his depth when issues stray to things like foreign policy (where he’s made several odd statements about China and Libya and other topics). With poll numbers heading south, and Mr Cain’s “9-9-9” mantra growing repetitive, will Herman Cain find another winning line?

  2. Will the surging Ron Paul solidify recent gains with a strong performance?

    Recent polls show Texas Representative Ron Paul in a four way tie for first place in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire. With a strong ground game and poll numbers higher than Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, but disproprotinately less media coverage (an alternate title to this point could easily have been, “Will Ron Paul get more than 89 seconds in this debate?”), Dr Paul has a chance to solidify recent gains with another strong performance.

  3. How will Newt Gingrich handle his recent surge in national polls?

    With a new spotlight shining on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, given his recent rise in the polls, the debate will be a chance for Mr Gingrich to consolidate his standing. However amusing his often flippant responses are (the alternative title for this point might well have been, “How long will it take Mr Gingrich to attack the moderators or avoid answering an unfavorable question by employing sarcasm?”), he’ll now have to answer questions about his dealings with Freddie Mac and other potential skeletons in his closet (as did Mr Cain upon his time in the spotlight amidst surging poll numbers).

  4. Will Mitt Romney’s absence sway Iowa voters, where Mr Romney is in a dead heat?

    Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney hasn’t spent much effort or money in Iowa, and his poll numbers reflect that fact. This debate, in Iowa, won’t feature Mitt Romney. Will his absence give his fellow contenders the chance to pull away?

  5. Will any of the other candidates be able to suprise with a strong showing?

    The rest of the field is hanging on by a thread, with the exception of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who would be out of the running entirely but for his rich campaign chest. With less than seven weeks until voting begins, will any of the candidates on the margins go for a game changing performance?

Michigan GOP Debate: Atrocious Moderators and Perry Implosion…

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The Michigan debate between the GOP Presidential nominee hopefuls, Wednesday, November 9th, was notable first and foremost for Rick Perry’s implosion (which we’ll get to later), but also for the behaviour of the moderators: CNBC inexplicably decided to include Jim Cramer among the rotating panel of moderators (yes, it apparently takes at least six CNBC people to moderate a debate, because it is important for a no-name network to get as much exposure as possible for its “talent”). Mr Cramer, he of the “I’ve had too much coffee and must yell in all instances” schtick, annoyed immediately and repeatedly, starting off by insisting that the Italian economy is “too big to fail” in making his own case for a US bailout while attempting to bait candidate Representative Ron Paul. Each time Mr Cramer opened his mouth, the credibility of CNBC took a hit. Mr Cramer is, quite simply, rather too buffoonish and far too much the cartoon character to ever be permitted a role (much less a speaking role) in an important thing such as a debate.

Moderator Maria Bartiromo rolls her eyes as Newt Gingrich responds.

The next low point arose almost immediately: in a debate ostensibly focussed solely on the economy, moderator Maria Bartiromo instead asked Mr Cain about the various allegations recently leveled against him. The audience, rightly, booed. The next question remained on the topic, when moderator John Harwood followed up by asking Mr Romney if he would fire Mr Cain, were Herman Cain the CEO of a company Mr Romney had acquired. The audience booed more loudly, candidate Romney shook his head in disbelief and responded by saying that Mr Cain was the one to answer that question and that he just had. The moderator then announced the focus would return to the economy, and the crowd erupted into applause. This, it seems, is the level to which CNBC has sunk in attempting to grab headlines in lieu of taking their debate responsibilities seriously. This was, by far, the most poorly produced debate to date, and two of the many moderators (Mr Cramer and Ms Bartiromo) seemed far, far out of their depth. Rick Santelli, meanwhile, with his extremely long-winded questions and pedantic delivery proved himself well suited for work outside the realm of television.

Here, then, is a summary of how the candidates performed:

Herman Cain

Mr Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and former lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, focused heavily on his now famous “nine nine nine” plan whenever possible (to the point that Mr Cramer asked him not to include “nine nine nine” or any other numbers in one of his final responses).

When asked about the recent allegation against him, Mr Cain made a forceful case against having one’s character put on trial in the court of public opinion via unproven allegations from, in at least three cases, anonymous sources. Shortly thereafter, Mr Cain made the perhaps imprudent decision to refer to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy” – something which will no doubt be analyzed in the context of the allegations he has been facing.

On topics outside of taxation and the economy in a general sense, Mr Cain (as we noted previously) seems far less certain of himself, and occasionally struggles to answer. But when he gets into territory he is more comfortable with, he is routinely able to hit it out of the park with his delivery. The “nine nine nine” refrain is wearing awfully thin, however, and he’ll need to get some new material to keep things fresh.

Overall score: B

Ron Paul

Representative Ron Paul of Texas had a reasonably good showing. Asked about his plan to eliminate student loans (which currently total an astonishing $1 trillion), and how students would pay for their tuition, Dr Paul answered, “the same way they pay for their cell phones and computers.” He went on to point out that every sector of the economy the government gets involved in faces substantially higher rates of inflation, and gave as examples housing, health care, education and stocks.

Representative Paul continued his common themes of the need to audit the Federal Reserve, and then abolish it, made the distinction between “crony capitalism” (current GOP buzzword) and plain old “capitalism” (while avoiding an attack on Governor Perry, which is what the moderator seemed to set up the question for) and emphasized his plan to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget in his first term in office.

Overall, Ron Paul fared well, but will be lost in the attention Mr Perry is going to receive, which is going to be overwhelming, given his massive gaffe (see below).

Overall score: B+

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gave a middling performance, and clearly has an ongoing and serious problem with the health care issue and his imposition of a personal mandate in the state he previously governed. It is a problem that both won’t go away (and will only get worse if he ever goes up against President Obama) and can’t be solved, because Mr Romney’s arguments are logically inconsistent and there is no possible answer that logically reconciles his insistence on repealing “Obamacare” with his actions while Governor in instituting a materially similar plan. Mr Romney looks rightfully pained when the topic comes up, but he can’t possibly believe it isn’t going to come up in every single debate and many interviews too.

The moderators pointed out inconsistencies in Mr Romney’s position on bailouts (he was against them before he was for them before he was against them again) to question his consistency, which Mr Romney rebutted unconvincingly.

Not the best performance for Mr Romney, but with Mr Cain dogged by scandal and Mr Perry accelerating his implosion, Mitt Romney gains simply by running in place.

Overall score: C+

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was in a testy mood, and took the moderators to task repeatedly. The first instance came when he scolded the media for their poor job of educating the public on matters economic. Moderator Bartiromo seemed to take that remark personally, and was clearly irritated by it.

Later, the moderators asked each candidate in turn to spend thirty seconds explaining their plan for health care once “Obamacare” is repealed. Mr Gingrich was the sixth candidate to respond, and he started with, “My colleagues have all done a fine job answering an absurd question”, before pointing out that a topic which consistutes eighteen percent of the economy and affects every person in America requires a more elaborate answer (and plugged one of his books in the process). Moderator Bartiromo told the former Speaker to take all the time he needs, to which Mr Gingrich clumsily demurred, claiming the other candidates would object.

Overall, though, Newt Gingrich had a fairly strong performance, and once again came across as the most intelligent (and most belligerent) of the people on the stage.

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum continued to push his plan to eliminate the corporate tax for the manufacturing sector. While this may play well in his home state of Pennsylvania, and perhaps Michigan too, the moderators (in one of their few redeeming moments) pointed out the logical inconsistency of being opposed to the government picking and choosing individual companies as winners and losers in the economy while being in favor of the government picking and choosing individual sectors of the economy as winners and losers. The point seemed lost on Mr Santorum, but it is an important one, because he seems to be arguing not that government should not pick winners, but rather that the government should pick winners in a different way: “the federal government should indeed meddle in the economy, and here’s how I would do it” is what his position amounts to. That’s a strange position to take while strongly arguing the federal government has no busines in mandated health care.

Mr Santorum, like Mr Huntsman, is seriously short of money and typically polling in the bottom single digits, and is unlikely to be in the running much longer.

Overall score: C-

Rick Perry

Another horrible performance from Perry – it is becoming physically painful to watch Governor Perry attempt to keep up with the grown ups in the room. Mr Perry’s worst moment of all the debates so far came when he announced his plan to shut down three Departments, and began to list them off. “Commerce”, he said. “Education. And…um…ah…” One of the other candidates finally threw out the EPA as a helpful suggestion, and Mr Perry said, “Ya!”. The moderator then asked if the EPA was indeed one of the departments Mr Perry would eliminate: “No.” The moderator then followed up by asking if Mr Perry really couldn’t remember the third Department he would shut down. Mr Perry couldn’t.

The only reason Mr Perry is taken even remotely seriously as a contender is because he has raised an awful lot of money. He is not a serious contender, and never was (as we previously noted, “…it’s hard to imagine a scenrio whereby he recaptures the lead in the polls, or comes anywhere close to the Republican nomination”) – he is of the school of politician which believes policy positions are incidental to obtaining power: pick whatever positions your crack support team thinks will get you in office, then you can do what you want. In a more intelligent politician, this can work (see Obama; Bush). Not so Mr Perry.

Rick Perry’s run is done, and no amount of money can help now – that clip is going to be viral on Youtube by the time this article is posted. And so the political system shows its strengths: given enough exposure and opportunities to hang themselves, many frauds inevitably reveal themselves. Mr Perry is one such fraud: the former chair of Al Gore’s Presidential campaign in Texas; the Governor who increased spending over 80% during his time in office but campaigned as the “true conservative”; he of the tongue tied moments, repeatedly, and cursed with an inability to clearly articulate the time of day has been exposed as little more than a political opportunist.

Overall score: F (is there a lower score available?)

Jon Huntsman

Back on stage after boycotting the Las Vegas debate, former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman didn’t have any notable moments, but thankfully didn’t try too many of his usual poorly delivered jokes.

Mr Huntsman has all his marbles on New Hampshire, and doesn’t have much cash on hand. Not a signficant contender, and did nothing to persuade viewers otherwise.

Overall score: C-

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, normally one of the stronger debaters, didn’t have a particularly strong showing by her standards, nor was her performance particuarly poor. Her explanation of her opposition to cuts in the payroll tax wasn’t fully formed, and much of her answers were recycled in whole from prior debates.

Overall score: C

Las Vegas GOP Presidential Nominees Debate: Perry Falters; Romney Steady; Paul Strong

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Tonight’s GOP debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, between hopefuls for the GOP Presidential nomination featured lots of fireworks, stumbles by some candidates (most notably Governor Rick Perry, but Newt Gingrich too) and some significant differences on policy positions. Here’s an overview of how the candidates fared:

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry has had a rough time in prior debates, and has seen his standing in the polls plummet rather dramatically, from an early, substantial lead, to currently out of the top three. Mr Perry needed a strong performance in this debate.

He didn’t produce it. In fact, his performance was so poor, the Las Vegas crowd booed him on several occasions. Mr Perry, it seems, has decided to focus on two things: answer as many questions as possible by working in the term “energy independence” (regardless of whether energy in any way relates to the question at hand), and attempt to attack former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

On this second point, Mr Perry adopted a strange strategy: clearly weakened by revelations in prior debates that, as Governor of Texas, he instituted a program whereby illegal aliens are subsidized by the state for post-secondary education (an illegal alien studying in Texas pays less than a visiting student from, for example, California or Illinois, with up to $100,000 less being the figure commonly quoted by Mr Perry’s adversaries), Governor Perry decided to level an allegation against Mr Romney that Mr Romney had previously knowingly hired illegal aliens and continued to employ them after learning of their status. This was not only effectively swatted aside by Mr Romney (as he explained it, a company he hired to tend to his lawn maintenance happened to employ an illegal alien, and fired that individual after Mr Romney objected, but subsequently hired another illegal alien), it allowed Mr Romney to make a point about his own plan for an electronic system which would permit employers to identify the legal employability status of employees.

On multiple occasions, Governor Perry repeatedly interrupted Mr Romney during Mr Romney’s answers, so much so that the crowd began to boo. Mr Romney effectively put Mr Perry in his place by suggesting that, as President of the United States, he would have to occasionally listen to other people without interrupting. And jarringly, Rick Perry repeatedly referred to Herman Cain as “brother”, which he did not do to any of the white candidates.

Mr Perry also suggested withdrawing United States support for the United Nations in its entirety. And Rick Santorum accused Governor Perry of writing a letter to Congress on the day of the TARP vote urging Congress to act (Mr Perry’s rebuttal was that his letter urged them to do “something”, but not what they did).

Governor Perry had a very poor outing, and it’s hard to imagine a scenrio whereby he recaptures the lead in the polls, or comes anywhere close to the Republican nomination. In each debate, Mr Perry has seemed vastly out of his depth, and increasingly relies upon repeating that his state has created the most jobs (notably absent from his claims, and not mentioned by the other candidates, is the fact that an awful lot of those jobs were in the state government: Governor Perry has increased spending 81.94% since he took office, as we previously reported in our article, “Perry vs Romney: Both Big Spenders, History Shows…“). It will be interesting to see how long Mr Perry remains in the race, given how poorly he has been performing, both on stage and in the polls, and it’s further hard to envision Governor Perry beating even the weakened President Obama. Mr Perry’s confidence and charisma have vanished; unfortunately it does not appear that leaves him with much to trade on in this race.

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had a generally steady night. Attacked early for his Massachusetts health care plan, and for prior suggestions that he considered such a program suitable for the entire country, Mr Romney fired back by proclaiming that the Massachusetts plan is right for the state but not right for the nation, and backed it up, as he has in the past, by pointing out that the citizens of Massachusetts favor his health care plan by a three to one margin. It’s an odd and difficult argument to make, because Mr Romney is essentially arguing that the merit of such a plan is a function of its scale: it’s okay at the state level but not okay (and, he claims, unconstitutional) at the federal level.

Governor Romney managed to very effectively silence Newt Gingrich by claiming Mr Romney’s plan took the idea for an individual mandate directly from Mr Gingrich. Mr Gingrich vehemently denied the charge, before admitting on a direct question from Mr Romney that he had indeed spoken out in favor of an individual mandate.

When Mr Perry attempted to cast Mr Romney as a “flip flopper”, Mr Romney responded by pointing out that Mr Perry previously chaired Al Gore’s Presidential bid against George W Bush.

Mr Romney’s strategy of avoiding specifics and masterfully directing many of his answers into, essentially, “This country needs jobs and I’ll give them to you!” played well: his style is so smooth that, unless listening closely, it’s easy to miss that he doesn’t actually say very much on any topic.

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul had another strong showing: here is a candidate who doesn’t need to pause and calibrate his message into what a candidate is “supposed to say” – his positions are logically consistent (Governor Perry, on the other hand, appears as though he has had too many aides providing too many “positions” on too many topics, to the point at which they have overcome his ability to memorize his supposed positions).

Ron Paul scored with the audience when moderator Anderson Cooper listed off the federal departments Mr Paul would shut down: Housing and Urban Development, Education, Energy, etc. On the question of foreign aid, Dr Paul simply stated he would cut all foreign aid, and at one point had both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry telling the audience they agreed with Mr Paul. His message that foreign aid amounts to taking money from poor Americans and giving that money to rich people in poor countries resonated with the crowd, as did his message about bailouts, the economic bubbles and the inability of the federal government to “manage much of anything”.

On the issue of whether he is in favor of the federal government storing spent nuclear contamination in Nevada, Ron Paul suggested it is inappropriate for the federal government to forcibly dump the garbage of forty-nine states on one of the states, said he considers it a state issue, and mentioned that, at one point, he was one of three members of the House to vote against the measure, the other two being representatives of Nevada.

Perhaps the most striking contrast of the evening came between Rick Santorum and Ron Paul on the issue of cutting defense spending: Mr Santorum (clearly a hawk, who previously stated he would like to “go to war with China” but probably meant he would welcome a trade war with the Chinese) said he would not cut one penny of defense spending. Ron Paul, on the other hand, pointed out that the United States maintains bases in 150 foreign countries and that it was time to bring the troops home.

Herman Cain

Former Godfathers Pizza CEO, and Chairman of the Kentucky Federal Reserve, Herman Cain has seen his fortunes shoot skyward after strong prior debate performances. His “9-9-9” tax plan was a focus of much of the early part of the debate, as Mr Cain’s new found status as front runner in some polls served to increase the scrutiny of his proposals.

Criticism of his tax proposal centred on the sales tax portion of his 9-9-9 plan: a 9% sales tax on all retail sales. Michele Backmann, a former tax attorney, repeatedly referred to it as a value added tax (the difference between a sales tax and a value added tax is that, with a value added tax, each step a product goes through on its way to market is taxed on the difference between the input cost and the sale price – the “value added” is taxed), while Mr Cain explained it was not a value added tax. Mr Romney asked if this sales tax would apply in addition to state sales taxes, which Mr Cain attempted to deflect as comparing “apples to oranges”. Mitt Romney replied, “And I’ll have to get a bushel to hold all the apples and oranges”.

As a former central banker, Mr Cain argues that he was in favor of the bank (and other) bailouts, but not how they were applied. That’s a message that is unlikely to resonate with many Republicans (or independents, or Democrats, or anyone who isn’t a current or former banker or other of the “bailed out”).

Other candidates argued that it would never pass (Newt Gingrich), that the people will not accept a sales tax (Rick Santorum) and that it will inevitably rise (Ron Paul; Michele Backmann). Herman Cain, meanwhile, argued that it would eliminate all the invisible taxes while simplifying the tax code.

Moderator Coooper quoted a statement Mr Cain had previously made in which he suggested that if people weren’t employed and weren’t rich, they should blame themselves, which caused much of the audience to applaud. Mr Cain said he stood by the statement. On the question of the current “Occupy Wall Street” protests, Herman Cain suggested the protesters’ anger was misplaced, as the government was to blame for the financial downturn and not Wall Street. Ron Paul suggested Mr Cain was blaming the “victims”, in reference to the unemployed, while the government people in charge of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as Wall Street participants, had yet to be held accountable.

On issues not related to his tax plan, Mr Cain seemed less confident and more as though he had been coached, and his answers to issues such as defense and immigration were far less compelling than his answers on matters economic.

Michele Backmann

Senator Michele Backmann had a generally strong performance, leveling several effective attacks on other candidates. Her positions on foreign policy were particularly strongly articulated, attacking Iran for their nuclear program as well as the purported assassination plot against a Saudi dipomat on United States soil. Mrs Backmann also came out heavily in favor of continued financial aid to Israel, “our closest ally” (the question of foreign aid to Israel drew strong contrasts between Michele Backmann and Ron Paul: Mr Paul argued in favor of withdrawing all aid to Israel).

Towards the end of the debate, on a question about the federal government’s role in housing, in light of the high number of foreclosures, Mrs Backmann made what seemed like an odd appeal to the “mothers out there”, and seemed near tears. It came across as a blatant appeal to female voters, and further, did not seem to resonate with the audience in the way Mrs Backmann no doubt intended it to.

However, Michele Backmann is a strong debater, and continued to find ways to insert herself into the conversation.

Rick Santorum

Essentially out of money and consistently polling in the single digits, former Pennsylvania Governor Rick Santorum started the night with an appeal to family values, and carried that theme on later in the debate, suggesting that “liberty” is founded upon families (at which point Ron Paul interjected, stating “I don’t think liberty comes in bunches”).

Mr Santorum, who often seems visibly pained by anything less than full militaristic support from the other candidates, attempted to insert himself into the debate with a spirited attack on former Governor Romney, attacking Mr Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan. He also successfully attacked Rick Perry’s support of the TARP bailout (see above).

Toward the end, Mr Santorum pointed to his record of having won as Governor of Pennsylvania, a swing state, stating that, “If we win Pennsylvania, we win the election!”

Given his lacklustre financial support and poor showing in the polls, expect Mr Santorum to drop out of the race after Iowa, at the latest.

Rick Huntsman

Former Governor of Utah and Obama Chinese Ambassador Rick Huntsman did not participate in the debate, ostensibly in order to boycott Nevada (which has changed the date of its primary to January 14th, in violation of GOP rules), but more probably because his campaign is in severe financial difficulty. Expect Mr Huntsman to withdraw from the race soon – after New Hampshire at the latest.