Final Republican Debate in South Carolina: Intensity Overload; Still No Surprises

–Richard E. Vatz

Well, no one can say it was boring, as the number of viable candidates diminishes and conservatives Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich find the need to trash each other and candidates Ron Paul and Mitt Romney as well to have a chance at the Republican nomination.

The CNN choice not to use arguably the best moderator so far, Wolf Blitzer, was an inexplicable mistake. Maybe the network, per its own values, abjures a meritocracy and chose King, another very smart network personage with flawed judgment. More on that later.

Gingrich and Santorum hit Romney on his changes in position, while the latter defended his own inconsistency on opposition to right-to-work laws in Pennsylvania as due to Pennsylvania’s population’s perceived requirements. How is that different from Romney’s support of some left-of-center positions due to the voting realities of Massachusetts?

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A lot of ground was covered, to give CNN’s debate its due.

Obamacare and Romneycare were debated with some questions remaining regarding the latter program’s private component. There are some aspects of Romneycare that are indefensible about which he is never asked, such as the complete psychiatric coverage afforded by the plan. This is from a Romney supporter. Still, he has made, and he made again, a credible argument regarding material differences from Obamacare in the state’s providing for the poor as opposed to mandatory federal coverage.

There were personal attacks on Gingrich’s representation of his political history consistency and effectiveness. There were attacks on Romney and Bain (and, as noted, his alleged mind-changing), but no new ground was broken. It was again evident as well that no one on the stage thinks of Ron Paul as a serious candidate.

The one peculiar weakness left unexploited is Rick Santorum’s claim of his tremendous electoral success in Pennsylvania against the great tides of liberalism there. He said he showed he could defeat a liberal incumbent. Santorum lost his last race in Pennsylvania by 18 points – 18 points! Why did no one bring this up?

Some good, serious points were made concerning the bill to punish piracy on the web. There were not major differences among the candidates on this (or several other matters), with a consensus that governmental control of the Internet was not a good idea — not surprisingly conservative.

There was another waste of time on pushing the candidates to reveal their taxes. An audience member made this even more salient. No one argued why this is a pressing issue, and no one knows why it is important to have audience members ask questions. By the way, who chooses these questioners?

On the moderating of John King, again, a smart guy: why in the world would he open up the final South Carolina presidential debate by focusing on Gingrich’s ex-wife’s claim about his marital irregularities? Gingrich gave him Debate Hell: he said he was “appalled” and it was “close to despicable” to begin a significant debate that way, closing with the statement that he was “tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama.” Romney appropriately dismissed the topic, saying, “Let’s get on to the real issues; that’s all I gotta say.”

It was an embarrassment for CNN, which is not to say they were or will be embarrassed.

The fact is that most of CNN is left and pro-Obama, but they are usually less clumsy than was King at the debate’s start.

Any observers who thought they learned something they didn’t know regarding the candidates haven’t been paying attention. Once again, the candidates were true to form philosophically, policy-wise, and even temperamentally, if you add equal amounts of intensity to each.

The question is which one can most likely beat Barack Obama, and to answer anyone but Mitt Romney means again that such an observer hasn’t been paying attention.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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