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Michigan Republican Debate – The Battle for Flavor of the Month

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been three weeks since the “Fight Night in Vegas” Republican presidential debate, because so much has happened between now and then that it almost seems like a completely different race.

With the sexual harassment allegations swirling around newly minted front-runner Herman Cain, it’s safe to say, no one really knew what to expect going into this forum in Michigan (at Oakland University, hosted by CNBC). The debate was supposed to center on the economy and how to fix it – and for the most part, the discussion staid on point.

Moderated by CNBC personalities Maria Bartiromo and John Harwood, you’d expect a more ‘business-like’ approach to the questioning… but it really ended up like a standard major media-sponsored presidential debate -- great for theater but rather shallow in substance.

“Mad Money” host Jim Cramer (and several others from the CNBC team, including Rick Santelli) also asked questions, providing a little variety to the presentation. Cramer was the only one who was overtly annoying, trying to carry his “screaming” act to this type of event – and it didn’t work. Watching Cramer practically shouting down Ron Paul was one of several low points of the evening – something that shouldn’t happen in a presidential debate.

It was unprofessional.

Winners

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich “won” the debate – with honorable mention going to Cain.

Romney because he was made for this type of forum, where all he has to do is look great in a suit and be able to put together one minute sound-bites of policy couched in economic jargon. When Romney stays on message, he’s nearly impossible to beat. The moderators tried time and again to get him ruffled, but this time (as compared to last month’s debacle), he refused to let himself off his own self-imposed leash.

Gingrich “won” because he’s always in command – and now that he’s rumored to be rising in the race, is getting a great deal more attention from the media personalities. Simply put, there hasn’t been a question formulated that Gingrich doesn’t have an answer for – a skill that must have frustrated his speech and debate foes in high school.

Gingrich only errs when he gets off on tangents or makes commercials with Nancy Pelosi – something that hasn’t happened lately, and one reason why conservatives are giving him another look.

Cain’s a “winner” because he was able to reaffirm his position in the race in the face of tremendous controversy, stare it down with class, and rally supporters behind him.

Losers

Rick Perry, because he’s so bad (at times), it’s embarrassing. When Perry couldn’t come up with the third department that he’d eliminate when addressing a question about 2/3 of the way through the discussion, it was a brain freeze that he just will not be able to recover from.

It’s not as though Perry’s had only one hiccup in a debate format – but this moment in time had people reacting in horror as we watched him turn to Ron Paul for “help” in restoring his thought process. He often appears lost and searching for words. I don’t ever recall a candidate stumbling so bad, only reinforcing a reputation that he’s inarticulate and uninformed.

Such is a moment that can end a campaign.

Jon Huntsman was the other “loser” in the debate. Unlike Perry, Huntsman always seems to have a lot to say – there’s just nothing there that people can really latch on to.

The ghost in the room

Needless to say, Herman Cain’s recent problems with sexual harassment allegations wasn’t a main focus in the debate, but there’s little doubt that the specter of suspicion was still present on Wednesday night. The single most awkward moment of the evening occurred when Maria Bartiromo dropped the “female accuser” issue on Cain, who pretty much repeated his canned explanation (“I didn’t do it”) to the question (which brought cheers from the audience).

Some of the allegations have stuck to Cain, but his denials are equally credible. Does that make it a wash?

Whether or not the accusations have merit matters little in the overall presidential race picture, since Cain’s been tarred with them one way or another. It’s awfully hard to disprove a negative. Like it or not, Cain’s Scarlet Letter is firmly sewn on his chest.

The past week and change have been extremely difficult for Cain in trying to dodge and deflect the media frenzy that’s surrounded him at every turn. The mainstream press isn’t really interested in talking about 9-9-9 anymore (though Cain still likes to throw it out there), preferring sordid whispers to substance whenever there’s a choice.

In the larger scheme of things, perhaps it doesn’t matter to the eventual outcome – because those who are inclined to believe Cain are not likely to change their impressions, and those who think he’s “toast” aren’t about to dismiss the accusations outright.

All along, Cain’s appeal as one of the conservative “non-Romney” candidates centered on his lack of polish (in the political sense) and his outsized personality. People have been drawn to Cain’s humble life story and his approachable character – no doubt, many have already become quite comfortable with the “pizza guy,” and that positive first impression isn’t likely to be dampened by claims from strangers with no hard evidence.

To his credit, Cain held his own throughout the Michigan debate, and once again demonstrated why people like him – and why he continues to lead in some polls. He’s likeable, his answers are simple and understandable, and he appears competent. A real leader.

Contrast Cain with Ron Paul. Paul sounds like an economics professor whenever he answers a question on the economy – impressive in many ways, but most people are left scratching their heads. You can almost hear them… “What did he just say…? Did you understand that? He’s nuts.”

Whereas, there’s no doubt about Cain and where he stands. We’ll see if he holds up.

Eye of Newt

With many pundits talking about who will be the next non-Romney “flavor of the month” from the conservative wing of the party (supposedly, at least), it’s not surprising that former Speaker Newt Gingrich is getting a lot of looks these days. After all, Gingrich has placed himself above the debate-fray from day one -- batting any potential ‘gotcha’ questions right back at the media whenever he’s been confronted, like Rafael Nadal returning serve from Roger Federer.

And he’s looked good doing it, too. No one doubts Gingrich’s intellect or his gift for banter – there isn’t anyone better in the GOP field in that regard. Wednesday night was no different, as Gingrich once again turned his focus on the inquisitors, not the inquisition.

A prime example occurred when he was asked about profits for business, and whether the Occupy Wall Street protestors have a point in blaming big business for the country’s financial woes. Gingrich turned the question around, asking why the media isn’t pushing the protestors on their motivations: “Who’s going to pay for the park that you’re occupying if there are no businesses making a profit?”

Gingrich has consistently kept the light shining on Obama and the Democrats, a quality that’s won him praise from many conservatives. Thinking about it, however, Gingrich has always played the partisan Republican game well. Questions remain as to whether he’s really observing Reagan’s 11th commandment, simply because he wants the GOP to win -- or if he’s truly opposed (on principle) to the types of things that both parties have been engaging in for decades.

Show him a Democrat, and Newt will find fault. But it’s hard to forget that Gingrich has also gone to the mat for liberal Republicans like Dede Scozzafava in the past, too.

Add to these concerns the fact that Gingrich has no real executive experience. Sure, he’s been Speaker of the House, but he’s basically a history professor and a career-long politician. He talks a great game (after all, he makes his living by being paid to speak), but does he know how to lead?

If Cain’s negatives rise in the coming weeks, with the continued emphasis on his sexual character, it’s conceivable that Newt’s profile will rise accordingly. Keeping the media’s focus on someone else’s alleged dalliances serves to take attention away from Newt’s known failings… the difference being that Newt has admitted it all.

At any rate, time will tell if Newt can sustain the momentum, or if he’s just having fun and hoping for a cabinet position in a Republican administration – any old Republican.

Another chance for Perry?

Not likely now.

Cain’s troubles have re-opened conservatives’ minds to Rick Perry, the candidate who entered the race as the instant front-runner (in August) and subsequently plummeted to earth when folks discovered that his oh-so-Texas-style wasn’t to their liking. The comparisons to George W. Bush were inevitable, and it’s clear that any allusion to the former president wasn’t going to win him favor with conservatives – and certainly not libertarian-oriented independents, either.

Perry’s debate performances have lacked flare (except perhaps for his ‘fight’ with Mitt Romney in the last debate), and his inability to articulate a vision for America has turned most of his core supporters away.

With questions of Cain’s character emerging, conservatives are taking another look at all the candidates, and Perry certainly remains one of the more attractive alternatives. True, his immigration record (and prior statements) isn’t going to win him much support, but he’s very believable as the non-Romney candidate who would go to Washington and start taking things apart.

The shame of it (as revealed on Wednesday night) is that Perry is just not presidential, because he’s unable to speak off-the-cuff. Just about all he’s able to offer is a series of platitudes, and his Texas experience no longer seems important when you envision him giving press conferences as president or debating President Obama. Obama is not that great of a debater himself, though Perry would make him look like one -- and quickly.

At this point, Perry should probably consider dropping out – of the debates, at least. But where would that leave his campaign?

Ron Paul, the invisible crazy old uncle

Ron Paul won another straw poll last weekend (this time in Illinois), proving once again that his supporters will follow him just about anywhere, turn out at big events, and elevate him to victory.

Paul could be the most successful non-candidate of all-time, and this comes from someone who genuinely likes Paul and thinks he’d make one heck of a president if he could ever get elected.

The media ignores him, and when they do cover him, it’s almost like they’re offering a condescending “tribute” to a crazy-old-coot candidate who has lots of people following him everywhere, contributing to his campaign, carrying signs, and yelling really loudly.

Paul’s supporters are usually treated worse by the media than the candidate himself, if that’s possible.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Paul will never win the GOP nomination. The other candidates can steal his ideas and claim to agree with him on his sincere limited government beliefs, but Paul is just too esoteric to appeal to a broad enough coalition of Republicans to vault him ahead of the establishment candidate and a host of other conservatives who are seen as more credible.

Paul’s diatribes on economics also don’t help, as he isn’t able to translate his vast knowledge into something that’s understandable (such as Herman Cain is so good at doing) to the common folk. Paul’s right about auditing and perhaps eliminating the FED – and he’s won the ultimate ideological war, but his battle losses are too much to overcome.

No one’s flavor of the month

One thing that’s been curious about the Cain problems – and the subsequent search for a new non-Romney candidate – is the lack of buzz surrounding the rest of the Republican field (most notably Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman).

The door is so wide-open for these Republicans to seize the day – and the fact they haven’t done it – should speak volumes as to their chances to eventually win the nomination. Michele Bachmann had her day in the sun while winning the Iowa straw poll, but hasn’t developed a compelling theme to her candidacy that will supersede her rather paltry four years in the House of Representatives.

As demonstrated again on Wednesday night, she’s got plenty of fire and her conservative credentials are solid, but for a country crying out for leadership, she can’t really show that she’s done anything other than make a lot of dazzling speeches.

Rick Santorum on the other hand, has never “risen” to the level of flavor-of-the-month, languishing since the beginning in the low single digits in national polls. Santorum has placed all his eggs in Iowa’s basket, having visited all 99 of the state’s counties – but it hasn’t translated into popular favor in the Hawkeye State… or anywhere else, for that matter.

His debate showings have steadily improved (partly because his hands are no longer flailing all over the place), but he’s been out of office too long, not enough people know him, and he doesn’t stand out in this type of format.

If Rick can’t be the “flavor,” how can he be president?

Ditto for Jon Huntsman, who was last seen sitting around the table with Charlie Rose (and the others) in New Hampshire, almost a month ago.

Huntsman’s back-and-forth with Romney over China towards the end of the debate was effective in distinguishing him from the former Massachusetts governor, but he doesn’t have anything catchy like Cain’s 9-9-9 to offer people, and he doesn’t really come across as a leader.

For example, Huntsman was asked about how he’d address income inequality… quite a question considering the Huntsman family’s great wealth. He just doesn’t have it.

No flavor change

Seeing as Wednesday night’s debate was televised only on CNBC, it probably did not have as wide a viewership as some of the others – and that’s good for someone like Rick Perry. The fact that Herman Cain can’t seem to escape the news cycle may have brought in a few more interested on-lookers, though it’s hard not to conclude that this debate didn’t really solve much in the race for the presidential nomination.

By now, most of the subjects have already been addressed, and people are starting to make up their minds. Conservatives are still searching, hoping someone will get a firm grip on the “not Romney” position in the party.

We’ll get another chance to find out on Saturday night, ironically (the next debate).

I am not buying what you are selling

You are telling me that Ron Paul's economic ideas are hard to fathom?What is hard to understand is what we have now.Ron's plan is simple.Save a lot of money by not wasting it on things that harm America.Back money by something other than thin air.Stop borrowing from a private bank,with interest,to pay all the governments bills.I don't think I can dumb it down anymore than that.I came up with the same plan when I was 8 years old.Does that make me a prodigy?No,it means I can understand how obvious the problem is.Lifelong Republican.Voting for Ron Paul.The only one who is not a liar.

Trust is Ron Paul's middle name

Totally agree with shelltile56 - Ron Paul's economic ideas are very understandable with the Constitutional basis of sound money .....exit the Fed. We can but trust one candidate and that is Dr. Ron Paul. Restore America with freedom and liberty - Ron Paul 2012.

Perry lacks flare?

How can you say Perry's debate performances lack flare?  He really flared himself up Wednesday night--it was the most spectacular self-immolation on live television ever. The man is a walking can of lighter fluid holding a sparkler. Texas toast, indeed! Keep your eye on Newt. He is the only viable alternative to Romney left standing, and he could finish off Obama in October debates. But I still ask myself: Where is Mitch Daniel when we need him?

Quality of debates

It seems so obvious that no one is serious about conducting truly meaningful debates. Could it be these "quasi-debates" are more the fault or design of the moderators than the candidates themselves? When is the Republican party going to get serious about providing voters a real, non theatrical presentation of platforms? As for the "winners" of this latest debate, a reveiw and analysis of the "winners'" past performance in elected positions--Flip-Flop Romney and Contract "on" American Gingrich--says volumes about their suitability and should invalidate both. So before recommending anybody just drop out, why not first take a shot at a meaningful, well conducted debate and see who truly emerges as a winner.

Nomination process ...

Huntsman, Bachmann Perry and Santorum add little to these quasi-debates and need to resume their lives as non-candidates.   These four have zero chance of being nominated.

What is needed

 In these debates listeners want to hear what each candidate says about the same question. We need to distinguish between A B C D  E F G candidate.The CNBC discussions were the best so far. The questioners were very well prepared. It is not the candidates who need to change but the questioners. One on one answers to the same question are needed. Short question and short answer. Will they just follow Article II, Sections 2 and 3 of The Constitution? The President has a short job description. What will they recommend that Congress reduce, eliminate, terminate, remove, cancel, repeal, end, revise, improve, require, liquidate, reform, implement, and close. Check with Citizens Against Government Waste. What regulation that strangles the people will they recommend?

Totally agree

You are spot on - much of the feeling that the GOP field is weak is due to the fact that most of the debates have been moderated by liberal media commentators.  They specifically word their questions to make Republicans look bad.

But I think just as importantly, they target specific candidates for specific questions and answers, and NOT the ones that would have the strongest showing.  Asking a question about the Fed or Healthcare but not allowing Ron Paul, the most qualified candidate, to weigh in and answer?  That makes absolutely no sense at all, but it's happened in at least 3 of the debates so far.  Plus the media are giving the weakest candidates (Romney, Perry, Cain) the most talking time, leaving less time for the actual thought leaders (Paul, Gengrich) to add substance to the debates.  All the time we spent talking about Romney's gardener COULD have been used to discuss something useful.