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GOP debate: Will Bachmann look presidential? Will Pawlenty go after Romney?

Rep. Michele Bachmann
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Rep. Michele Bachmann

WASHINGTON — There’s a new word in the campaign lexicon: Obamneycare.

It’s a portmanteau, coined by Tim Pawlenty of Obamacare and Romneycare, and was not-at-all coincidentally released on the eve of the first presidential debate that both Pawlenty and Mitt Romney would feature in.

Romney is the frontrunner, leading in most polls but whose support the pollsters say is both wide and shallow. Pawlenty is the would-be insurgent, running for months now as an acceptable alternative to any other candidate you’d care to mention, but especially Romney.

And tonight, at 7 p.m. Central at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., they, and the rest of the seven major candidates running for president will be on stage together for a debate.

Here, candidate by candidate, is a guide to what I’ll be watching for. We’ll have a full recap in tomorrow’s newsletter, along with detailed analysis. I’ll also be following the debate live on Twitter, join me there at @dwallbank.

In late April, also in New Hampshire, Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty, Romney, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum took turns on stage to tell a rental hall full of Republican activists their plans. Most spoke broadly. Bachmann, a former tax attorney, gave a list of policy prescriptions that Michael Gerson (the former George W. Bush speechwriter) told me afterward sounded like a tax attorney had given them.

Often forgotten, in light of Pawlenty’s major budget address, is that Bachmann has actually laid out her intention to balance the federal budget in Fiscal 2012, alongside some cuts that she’d use to get it there. While that would require extremely large cuts of about $1.3 trillion — and she’s only detailed about $423 billion or so of that — it sets a more ambitious marker than others have so far.

In small rallies with those who love her, Bachmann can work the crowd like none other. She’s great at one-on-one interactions. But in a multi-candidate debate format? Well, the AFP event earlier this year was the closest she’s come and it went OK. Not great, not terrible, about OK.

I guess this is her chance to look presidential, whatever that means. I don’t mean her actual look and such because I’m not a fashion critic and nor do I aspire to be one. Also, nor is it particularly relevant. What I mean is that she’ll be on stage amongst a group where at least four others (Gingrich, Pawlenty, Paul and Romney) have spent the last several years planning for this moment and this contrast.

I’ll be looking specifically to see how she presents her arguments. Will she speak as she does at a Tea Party rally, with frequent rhetorical questions and an ever-rising cadence as the outrage builds? Will she use the empathy she projects in one-on-one settings with Tea Partiers after those rallies who are concerned as she is that the country has bordered a federally subsidized express train to insolvency? Or will she outline her remarks as the tax attorney, exacting and deliberate?

Essentially, in tone and style, what’s the message she sends to the electorate in her first moment on the big, presidential stage?

He’s got a big following in the Tea Party movement, and has rocketed up the polls from  an outlier to the very low double digits. Yet this is the first chance many will have to see the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and talk radio host live on TV.

Cain is a particularly good orator — probably the best on this stage and by some margin — and he has a style of speaking similar to a revival preacher. All of that stands to his favor.

The thing is, that rise in the polls now means that Cain has begun moving from the fringes of the race to a position where people are starting to talk as if he can actually win. And there’s the test for a candidate who has pledged to veto any bill that’s more than three pages long, said he doesn’t have a plan for Afghanistan and was unaware of some of the basic details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that one might expect someone at this stage to have a firm grasp of.

I’m really looking here for the moderators to press on policy — talk about specific issues and press for specific answers. And then, let’s see what Cain has to say.

Honestly, I don’t really have a long list for Newt Gingrich. It’s simple here.

Almost his entire senior leadership team up and quit last week. So for me, I’m just curious how he answers the obvious question: If the folks closest to you don’t think you should be president, why should you? And the answer to that will be very revealing.

Ron Paul’s positions on issues are very well known – basically he’s a strident libertarian on almost everything. I’m curious here to see who agrees with him and on what. Remember, at one point Michele Bachmann led the cheers for a Ron Paul candidacy, so how will she receive Paul onstage?

After laying out a detailed economic plan heavy on Reaganomics, Pawlenty enters this debate with among the more detailed (if optimistic) economic plans.

So where does that leave the rest of the field which, aside from Bachmann, really hasn’t put out anything like it? Do the two other so-called establishment candidates — Romney and Gingrich — embrace Pawlenty’s cut-tax-cut-spending plan, and to the same level, less or more? Also, will it be validated by the “purer” candidates in this race – the Bachmann/Cain/Paul/Santorum quartet?

Tim Pawlenty
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Tim Pawlenty

Interesting before this was the aforementioned pivot against Romney on health care. Remember that we and others have tried to drag an opinion out of Pawlenty on Romney’s health care plan, and the closest we’d gotten was that Pawlenty wouldn’t talk about others (Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment and all), but he’d chosen to go another way.

This is a clear pivot for Pawlenty, and I’ll be very interested to see how it works.

Perhaps nothing ensconced Romney as the frontrunner more than all the attention the other candidates are paying him.

He’ll face criticism from all sides — probably subtly from some like Pawlenty and overtly from others like Rick Santorum. I’m looking to see how he handles it.

I know Team Romney has done their homework. They have an opposition file on everyone, culled from meticulous research. As Pawlenty launched into his Obamneycare attack, Romney’s folks pushed back strong by unsubtly noting that he’d left Massachusetts with a surplus after he was governor, and that the state had increased its credit rating. The obvious contrast was with the only other governor in the race.

If there’s going to be a contrast set up between candidates, Romney doesn’t want it on health care, though health care will undoubtedly come up as a question. What he wants to talk about is the economy, and Team Romney thinks they have the better of the field on that issue.

While they have little but withering criticism for President Obama, when contrasting against each other both Romney and Pawlenty are the sort who like to throw subtle jabs at each other that anyone who intensely follows the race can see, but might fly over the casual observer’s head.

Rick Santorum isn’t that kind of candidate. He is 100 percent, fully and totally willing to throw huge bombs at his primary opponents early and often. If this debate becomes what might be charitably called a study in sharp contrasts, I expect Santorum to have brought it there and to try and keep it there.

He’s got the resume — senator for 12 years from swing-state Pennsylvania — but his last contest there was when he got blown out by the very liberal Bob Casey in 2006. As such, voters who are looking for a candidate to beat Obama probably aren’t stopping at Santorum. But he also ticks all the boxes for social conservatives, and will be unapologetic in his demands that every other candidate do the same.

So far, Santorum’s chief target of criticism has been Romney. Watch to see if he stays after Romney or if he broadens his attacks — and if any of the charges stick.

If I were a moderator
Here’s the theme that would underline every one of my questions: OK, you don’t like Barack Obama’s plan. What would YOU do instead? And be specific.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 06/13/2011 - 11:20 am.

    Is the debate being televised or webcasted? C’mom Derek, I thought you’d be firein’ those guns or ringin’ them bells warnin’ us all about where we could watch this debate!

  2. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 06/13/2011 - 11:34 am.

    I’d like to see tough questions directed at Pawlenty’s much-ballyhooed balancing of the state’s budget without new taxes. We all know how abysmally state services have declined and how cities and counties have been hit. What national reporters have failed to tease out are the sleight-of-hand gimmicks Pawlenty used to drag our state down while sucking up to the no-tax bullies. Nevada’s Supreme Court has just found that raiding other funds in order to balance the budget is unconstitutional. Maybe that will shake up other states, too. Pawlenty was a genius at that kind of chicanery and I’d love to see him called on it.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/13/2011 - 12:15 pm.

    Anybody who says this is a weak field is whistling past the graveyard. This is a very strong field, any of whom are just as qualified in their own way to be president as the community organizer was when he ran in 2008.

    The “least qualified” amongst them, Herman Cain, would wipe the floor with Obama in a debate. Watch Herman Cain tonight and you’ll see why most conservatives would love to see him on the ticket, whether it’s the top or second spot.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 06/13/2011 - 02:27 pm.

    I thought this article was going to be funnier than it was. After all “Will Bachmann look presidential” sounds like a joke.

    Speaking of graveyards, I suspect this “very strong field” will be pushing up political daisies in about 18 months, cross your fingers. Oops, didn’t mean to an evil, left wing witchcraft analogy.

  5. Submitted by Derek Wallbank on 06/13/2011 - 02:46 pm.

    Jackson: CNN has it on TV and online (at There will undoubtedly be a pregame and postgame show, if you’re up for that too.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 06/13/2011 - 03:16 pm.

    All you have to remember is George W. Bush was pushed upon us as a “conservative”. The rest of the “conservative” story is history. Remember Bachmann hanging all over George W. Bush at the State of the Union speech on TV in front of millions and millions of people? She supported him all the way to a “conservative”-led financial disaster regardless of what her words say today. Having a big mouth is not the same as having leadership. Bachmann doesn’t have any vision, only an ideology that will serve her and a special few. Keep the George W. Bush image in your mind because that is the real Bachmann.

    Pawlenty stood silently by as George W. Bush as performed his fiscal magic. As far as Pawlenty goes we only have to look at the shape he left Minnesota in, another fiscal mess left by a self proclaimed “conservative”. No matter how much Pawlenty tries to rewrite history his legacy is a $6,000,000,000 debt. If Pawlenty were able to think of himself objectively (and he can’t) here is what he would come up with. I’m was able to kick the can down the road in hopes of someone else getting to handle the problems. I excelled at trickery and deception. I didn’t raise taxes, just fees. Two terms in office and I have zero notable accomplishments. I was frequently absent from the state as I was off serving myself. I’m incapable of working with others. I have one concern in my life, me. I will help you if you have deep pockets. I’m a political weasel. I was against the stimulus because the Republican talking points said I had to be against it but, I did however base 25% of my states budget on federal assistance. I’ve never won a gubernatorial election by majority vote. I sound like a high school walking Republican talking point machine. I sued the Federal Government over health care reform so it will look good to my Republican friends. The Minnesota State Supreme Court has found I operated outside the law. Who knows maybe this is the resume that will make me president so I can do good things for you too! He has the appropriate last name. I have had Paw-lenty of him!

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/13/2011 - 04:31 pm.

    If Rep. Bachmann manages to look presidential, I will eat the Stillwater lift bridge.

  8. Submitted by will lynott on 06/13/2011 - 06:58 pm.

    Dennis, even the republican moneybags disagree with you. Not one of these turkeys excites any of them. I have visions of a lot of regressives sitting on their hands on election day, regardless of who’s nominated.

    Herman Cain??? Don’t make me laugh. Sorry, too late!

  9. Submitted by William Pappas on 06/13/2011 - 10:27 pm.

    The question is not if Bachmann will look presidentail but more “when” will Pawlenty look presidential. His major economic address was absolutely blown up by conservatives and liberals alike as absurd in the extreme. Fantasy was a word used by both sides. It also doesn’t matter if Bachmann looks presidential. Her problem will be sounding presidential as she plays fast and loose with the truth. The American public, the part that does not wear idological blinders, is going to have a great time with this.

  10. Submitted by John Hoffman on 06/13/2011 - 11:28 pm.

    She is the “Clown” T-Paw was referring to when he suggested you don’t have to be a loud mouth to be a strong leader. I thought he did give a decent conservative answer in tonight’s debate about the separation of church and state.

  11. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/14/2011 - 09:20 am.

    The Stillwater bridge is safe, at least from me.

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