Thursday night’s Fox News/Washington Examiner GOP candidate debate featured more combative exchanges between conservative journalists and candidates than we’d seen thus far, and some fireworks between the contenders themselves. The debate-point winner was probably Newt Gingrich, who bashed his media tormenters effectively and was generally smooth and fluid, and the strategic winner was probably Mitt Romney, who had some good moments and again escaped any serious damage from his rivals. But in terms of the immediate impact on Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll, it’s a bit harder to tell, since neither of the debate “winners” are competing in Ames.
Indeed, though we won’t know until Saturday night’s balloting closes at 7 pm CDT how it all turns out, much of the results have probably already been predetermined by the number of voters who have received pre-paid tickets ($30 a pop) from campaigns that have reason to think they’ll “vote right,” having decided to drive to Ames or hop a ride on a campaign van or bus, and can therefore be trusted to stay committed—or as the cynical might put it, “bought”—until their ballot is cast and their finger is dipped in indelible ink.
Before the Thursday night debate, virtually every observer expected the top three finishers in Ames to be, in some order, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul. All three of them have distinct strengths and weaknesses.
Bachmann has the buzz, the momentum, and at least a decent angle (if not a corner) on the highly motivated and pre-organized conservative evangelicals who gave the cash-strapped Mike Huckabee an improbable second-place finish in Ames in 2007, and a caucus victory in 2008. Her main weakness is in organization (she reportedly has only four field staffers in the state), compounded by a relatively late start and the Washington responsibilities that have made her largely a weekend warrior in Iowa. Bachmann’s straw poll campaign has been largely confined to central Iowa, and has largely consisted of paid media and robocalls (though there’s some buzz that her supporters are doing well in self-organizing through social media).
T-Paw, for his part, has a world-class statewide Iowa organization, full of straw poll and caucus veterans, who have been preparing for this weekend for many months. Free from day-job responsibilities, he’s spent more days in the state than anyone other than Rick Santorum (who moved his family here a few weeks ago). In Iowa, as elsewhere, he is acceptable to every party faction, and is especially warm-and-cozy with the state’s powerful anti-abortion movement, which views his wife, a former Minnesota judge, as a staunch ally. But his problem in Iowa, as it is nationally, is that he just doesn’t seem to enthuse voters. His “Results, Not Rhetoric” slogan may offer a sly dig at his fellow-Minnesotan, while pointing to his governing record in Minnesota, but it seems ill-fitted to a campaign cycle where Republicans want fire from every podium.
Paul, finally, is sort of the Goldilocks candidate of the field: He’s got a good organization—not as good as Pawlenty’s, but far better than he had in 2007—and he’s certainly got intensely loyal supporters famed for their willingness to show up at straw polls—though not as many as Bachmann might command if she could reach and turn out conservative evangelicals en masse. So it’s hardly surprising some handicappers think he could well sneak past the favorites and pull off a win.
As for how the debate might have shaken up the calculus among the three contenders, Tim Pawlenty got off some good prefab lines at the expense of Barack Obama (and, to some extent, Romney), but his attacks on his main straw poll rival, Michelle Bachmann, were shrill and complicated, and the general impression is that Bachmann—who otherwise did not dazzle as she did in the last big debate in New Hampshire—got the better of their exchanges.
The biggest question is how much damage Ron Paul did to himself, right when he seemed to be breaking into a more mainstream Republican electorate, with his fiery remarks on foreign policy. The visual image of Mitt Romney, standing next to Paul and looking at him like a lab specimen as he defended Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program, was striking. The loud hooting and cheering of Paul’s supporters in response to his most controversial (to conservatives) statements reinforced the idea that his is not a candidacy that’s ready, by any stretch, for the GOP primetime.
One thing that is relatively clear are the expectations against which each candidate will have to compete. Paul, of course, could care less about expectations; he will campaign to the bitter end no matter what, and even a victory in Ames will not gain him credibility as a potential nominee. Both Bachmann and Pawlenty, however, need a first-place finish: Bachmann in order to maintain her momentum and establish herself, once and for all, as a top-tier candidate, and T-Paw, more likely than not, in order to convince donors to keep his campaign afloat. And both are under the long shadow of Perry, who could quickly displace both Bachmann as the favorite of Tea Party and Christian Right activists, and Pawlenty as the electable-conservative-alternative-to-Romney. Ames, for all its nonsense, will likely begin the inevitable process of culling the wheat from the chaff.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.