Florida GOP Debate Recap and Breakdown: Nine Candidates…Three Categories

This piece was written by Art Smith- Publisher of The Conservative Reader, Justin Arnold-Editor of The Conservative Reader: Iowa, and Brian Nygaard-Senior Contributor at The Conservative Reader.

The lead up to every Presidential Primary debate is accompanied by media hype and pundit proclamations that this or that candidate has to “do well” or they are doomed going forward.  Often times the hype out measures the eventual importance of the proceedings and the proclamations prove to be mere misguided conventional wisdom.

Since last cycles debut of the “interactive” debate (CNN’s YouTube offering) saw ridiculous questions from a melting snowman (on global warming) and a citizen holding an assault rifle (on the 2nd Amendment), one sure would have been justified in being skeptical.  That said, for many reasons this debate certainly seemed to be elevated in its importance.

First of all the field is firmly settled at this point—Perry is in and Ryan, Rubio, Christie, and Palin are clearly not joining the party.  Secondly, the debate took place in arguably the most important swing state in the nation.  As we have seen in all recent Presidential elections—whoever wins Florida likely wins the White House.

The following is an evaluation of how we at The Conservative Reader viewed the performances of all nine candidates on the stage last night, and why their performances merited inclusion in one of the three following groups—The Winners, The Maintainers, and The Losers.

The Winners

Mitt Romney (Art)

Mitt Romney provided one of the better examples of how to look presidential.  Which he pretty much does best when he is just standing there.  But Thursday night his presentation continued to improve from the past and demonstrate an ability to ward off any and all attacks simply by ignoring or denying them.  Although nothing he said provided any substance (which is, admittedly, hard to provide in this setting), he provided good strong answers on Foreign Policy (he expressed unwavering support for Israel), Education (not just localize education decisions, but complimenting Education Secretary Arnie Duncan on his direction to evaluate teachers), jobs (adjust corporate/employer tax rates to globally competitive levels) and defending Massachusetts Health Care program.  His sparring with Rick Perry over Immigration, Social Security and Health Care did not reflect well on either of them, but Romney seemed to keep his cool throughout and act almost Reaganesque  by responding to some attacks with “Nice try.” (Reagan o
ften responded to reporters’ challenges with “There you go again.”).  His best like of the evening, in response to a question about the Middle East, was “You stand shoulder to shoulder with your allies.”  Although some of his answers were not answers at all (“Strong Leadership” does not qualify as an answer in my book), Mitt clearly held his own and kept himself in the forefront of the debate.

Newt Gingrich (Art)

Newt was his usual confident, concise and slightly comical self.  He seemed unable to answer any question without first dropping some kind of one-liner.  He has always been on target with his answers, reflecting years of solid experience and ability to work with leaders both domestic and foreign.  His reference to the New Contract with America, set to be released soon in Des Moines, showed his campaign is starting to make some progress, but does not quite have enough solid support and attention as some of the more charismatic candidates.  Strong answers included Education (Pell Grants are a nice detail), moving to a business investment model for foreign aid instead of the US government funding other governments directly (Government-to-government encourages corruption), tying mandatory business funded training to extended unemployment programs.  Although Newt’s demeanor really hasn’t changed much, the expression of his ideas are a little easier for the public to grasp and the fact that the panel questions are
much better than past Fox debates allowed Newt to clearly demonstrate his grasp of issues and ability to present his ideas cogently.

Herman Cain (Justin)

Cain received perhaps the warmest and most enthusiastic response from the crowd throughout the entire night—which was somewhat surprising.  He no doubt had a good night and this was likely his best debate performance so far.

The biggest positive he possesses is his powerful, warm, and immensely likeable personality— and it was on full display last night.  The lack of specifics that hurt him in prior debates were not a factor in this one.  This was due both to his answers being more detailed and to the fact that other candidates have taken to being increasingly vague (especially Rick Perry).

One of the debates great moments was the long ovation Cain received for battling and surviving stage 4 colon cancer.  He followed this with a fantastic answer explaining his potentially provocative statement that under Obama Care his condition would have resulted in his death.  Mishandling the reasoning for this claim would have been disastrous but he instead hit it out of the park.

His strong performance was driven by him focusing on his 9-9-9 tax plan (which had been cleverly panned as sounding more like a pizza deal), a clear and muscular position on Palestinian state-hood and Israel (“If you mess with Israel, you mess with the United States of America”), and his twice evoking Reagan doctrines in his answers.

His placement in the winner category is due to the fact that, after being a side note the last couple of debates, this performance surely raised his relevance level back to the upper second-tier status.  In my view he joins Rick Santorum as the two hands-down best VP possibilities among the 9 candidates running.

The Maintainers

Ron Paul (Brian)

Congressman Paul did what the gentleman from Texas always does: he entertains by being quirky, right to the edge of concern over his overall mental health. In the debate last night, his libertarian politics were once again in fine and fiery form, and all good conservatives love his anti-government, anti-Federal Reserve rhetoric. At the same time, when every question that is asked brings forth the same response (“Get the Federal Government out of it”), it is impossible to truly understand who this man really is. The narrow sub-section of conservatism that is libertarianism continues to delight the audience, but fails to address in sufficient detail the manner in which he thinks. It is unfortunately possible to program a computer to replace Ron Paul in the debate. He is undoubtedly a very smart and well-educated man. We all enjoy him, and we did again last night. But he remains only an interesting part of the scenery.

Rick Santorum (Brian)

Senator Santorum is always an impressive human being. He is the model of what a “compassionate conservative,” rightly and positively defined, looks like to many in the audience. He embraces the deeply spiritual notions of human dignity and human depravity, and he understands how those attributes fit within his very principled understanding of the world. He speaks from his heart more directly than anyone else on the stage. He might be the most respected human being amongst the candidates. Last evening’s performance did nothing to alter our long-standing sense of who Rick Santorum is.

Unfortunately, the executive leadership issue looms so large in this contest that it makes little difference what the good Senator from Pennsylvania says. His resume is just not sufficient. He will fit well somewhere in the next administration.  And he should be counted on to make a very significant contribution to the conservative cause.

Jon Huntsman (Art)

Jon is a very likable guy and expresses his thoughts effectively.  Unfortunately, he is seen as week on subsidies (he is okay with them sometimes) and doesn’t explain his position on this well with regard to natural gas subsidies, nor did he go as far as others on the stage as to support elimination of the Department of Education.  He did reiterate an important point regarding the impact of ObamaCare and Dodd/Frank on small businesses, and took the initiative to jump into the conversation with Santorum regarding the keeping of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Strong answers from Huntsman included: Dodd/Frank and ObamaCare are bringing too much uncertainty to the market place, our nation’s competitiveness is tied to Education, and “America can’t save Pakistan. America can’t save Afghanistan. Only America can save America.”

Gary Johnson (Justin)

I am going to spend about as much time on Gary Johnson as he was given air time during the debate…which is to say not much.

Back after a three debate hiatus due to irrelevancy, his performance was relatively strong and markedly better than his last appearance (the first debate in South Carolina).  In the brief time he spoke he was much more demonstrative and much less “quirky” than he came off during his first debate appearance.

On a policy level his main initiatives are a promise to submit a balanced budget to the Congress as President in 2013 (a point he mentioned in literally every answer), and replacing the entire tax code with the Fair Tax.  The way he would balance the budget starting next year is to cut 43% from nearly every government agency (including defense), thus simply eliminating the 40 cents out of every dollar that we currently borrow in order to spend.

While I am not usually taken with the “light hearted” moments in these debates, former governor Johnson uttered hands down the funniest thing I have ever heard in a debate by saying, “my next door neighbors two dogs have produced more shovel ready jobs than this administration.”

He is a maintainer on this list, but unfortunately what he is maintaining is irrelevance.

The Losers

Rick Perry (Brian)

Governor Perry entered the GOP contest as the candidate that everyone could agree on. He appeared to have the full set of credentials as a tested executive leader necessary to bring the party together. As he entered the race, the hope was that with his appearing he might potentially obviate the need for a messy and divisive GOP primary. After last evenings debate, that dream is no longer a reality.

Governor Perry suffered in the debate along three significant fronts. The first is that he seems to lack the ability to attack his fellow contestants with any level of force or credibility. The art form which is the political attack is performed well by only a very few. Governor Perry seemed both ill-equipped and ill-prepared to make his attacks on Governor Romney…and not because Romney defended himself all that well. The second problem is that he seems unable to retain the fine balance of espousing simple solutions without coming across as mentally simple himself. Only when the simple comes from a base of perceived intelligence does simple work. And lastly, his support of mandatory HPV treatments and tuition grants for the children of illegals, while undoubtedly coming from a heart of caring, seems the type of compassionate conservatism that has been tested and rejected. The cruel reality after last night is that Mr. Perry, contrary to the hopes of many, is probably not going to be the GOP candidate.

Michelle Bachmann (Justin)

The conventional wisdom was that this was a “now or never” moment for Rep. Bachmann and that she may be the candidate going in with the most to lose.  I happened to agree with both of these assertions and feel that clearly lose is what she did.

For whatever reason all her flaws as a candidate seemed to be highlighted on this night—namely her penchant for not directly answering questions, her need to spend time defending unnecessary and questionable statements made on the trail, and her inability to effectively handle questions in a way that maximizes benefit to her (something that Romney is quickly becoming a master at by the way).

She started the night being asked to take another shot at answering a question she was asked in the last debate and failed to answer.  Amazingly she failed to answer the question (in a realistic way) yet again, and things didn’t get much better after that.  A shot at Perry about financial contributions he received from a drug company and a possible connection they had to an executive order he issued failed to resonate the way she no doubt expected it to.

On a policy level not much new was made known.  She was strong on immigration (“We should build a fence on every mile, every foot, every inch of that border”), made clear she would abolish the Dept. of Education, and was once again a bull on repealing Obama Care.  Her willingness and insistence on making this issue a near obsession is, in my view, the strongest thing her candidacy has going for it at this point, and I am continually surprised that more of the others don’t hammer away at this issue as intensely as she does.

Her biggest problem is two-fold.  For being no lower than forth in any poll she gets relatively low air time, and much of the time she does get is spent explaining misstatements and largely missing opportunities to score maximum points with her answers.

She is a “loser” on this list because the aforementioned reasons are coupled with her being compared to more skilled candidates, and the recent rise of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and the re-rise of Herman Cain.


About the Authors

Mr. Arnold is a long time constitutional conservative. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature from the University of Iowa. Over the last few years he has been involved in numerous political campaigns, most recently serving as campaign manager for an Iowa House candidate and serving as a city chair for Tom Latham. He is self-employed, running a small business in Ankeny, Iowa where he resides with his wife.


Mr. Nygaard is a Managing Director with Atticus Advisers, a marketing consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia.


Mr. Smith is the Publisher of The Conservative Reader. He is Partner/Owner of Ambrosia Web Technology as well as a Systems Architect for Wells Fargo. Art hold a degree in Computer Science from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and is a political blogger at the Des Moines Register. Art's views are purely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wells Fargo.

RSS Feed for This Post1 Comment(s)

  1. China Cat Sunflower | Sep 25, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Reply

    Another spot-on analysis by all three contributors! I thought there might be some mention of the “theatrics” by the Fox News Team, which I mistakenly thought they would rise above. When is the media going to realize we want Substance and specific answeres to intelligent questions, and not infighting among the candidates? Thank You.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

    Log in