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A strange GOP debate

MinnPost teammate Jay Weiner already filed a perspicacious analysis of last night’s kickoff debate of the Republican presidential field.

MinnPost teammate Jay Weiner already filed a perspicacious analysis of last night’s kickoff debate of the Republican presidential field. A few more thoughts and details:

The debate was strange, mostly since the media-designated serious contenders skipped it (with the notable exception of Minnesota’s own Tim Pawlenty), and relatively uneventful. More strangeness: AP and Reuters refused to cover the event (or distribute any coverage of it) because of unprecedented restrictions that the sponsors — Fox News and the South Carolina Repub Party — imposed on photography.

The surprise winner, at least according to a Fox focus group, was Herman Cain, although U.S. Rep Ron Paul got, by far, the most applause. (That latter development seemed to have less to do with Paul’s answers than a decision by his backers to ignore the request by the organizers to hold down the applause.)

Fox’s panel of questioners did fine. They went with a seriously-enforced one-minute limit on answers, which worked fine (although, in the long run, there is something pitiful about what this says about the current understanding of our attention spans).

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Personally, I couldn’t see what Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, did that the focus group found so impressive. But when Fox cut to righty focus-group-guru Frank Luntz for the group’s reaction, it turned out that about half of the group had been converted over the-90 minute debate into Cain supporters. The groupies said it was the direct nature of his answers. (I didn’t detect any directness advantage for Cain.) The group members were all South Carolinians and professed great annoyance with the many top tier contenders who skipped the event. They were sneeringly dismissive of the excuse that Donald Trump couldn’t be there because he has to finish up his Apprentice TV show first.

I was particularly struck by the focus group’s wowed reaction to Cain, since he was the only black candidate and the focus group was almost all white and South Carolinian. But unless Cain ends up emerging as a serious candidate, the debate will be a non-remembered non-event.

On substance, the most interesting pattern was the difference between the two real libertarians — Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson — and the three more conventional Repubs, who emphasize “liberty” and small government on money issues but endorse big government on social issues like banning gay marriage, prostitution and marijuana use. Paul, whose stated position is that the federal government should have nothing to do with defining marriage, actually supported for the Defense of Marriage Act, and his attempt to explain that away made no sense.

Tim Pawlenty
FOX News
Tim Pawlenty

One site, called Mr. Media Training, rated the candidates on pure presentation points and gave Pawlenty its highest grade (a “B” compared to a “B-“ for Cain.) I didn’t agree. TPaw seemed slightly awkward. His answers were all familiar, and not much that he did seemed to move the crowd. But, as a first-time prez candidate, perhaps he was wise to participate while the other, more experienced, major candidates were away.

Michael Shear, blogging the event for the NYTimes, focused on one of TPaw’s answers, namely when he was asked to defend his shocking, horrifying (in certain circles) former flirtation with cap and trade. TPaw went with the mea culpa approach, then asked for credit for at least a straightforward apology:

“It was a mistake, and I’m sorry. You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake.”

National Journal’s Beth Reinhard also focused on TPaw, in a piece that called his performance “lackluster.” The basic analysis seemed to be that, as the only serious contender present, he should have dominated, but he didn’t. That rap seems silly to me. When I catch his act, TPaw seems mostly to be going for an “I ain’t crazy” appeal. He has repudiated all former moderate positions, so as not to be eliminated by the righty purists. But he hopes there will come a time when the Repub electorate will decide it can’t go with a flame-throwing novelty candidate. If that moment arrives, he seems to hope (this is wild speculation on my part) that it will be small group, maybe Mitt Romney and himself.

A small personal note: If anyone noted my absence from the blog this week, I was taking care of my not-so-healthy mom out of town.