Penultimate South Carolina Republican Debate: No Major Changes; No Real Surprises; Panelists Excellent

–Richard E. Vatz

The one thing about presidential debates that has been true, whether primary or general election clashes since their inception in 1960, is that they generally offer diminishing returns. This, the mid-teens of debates in the presidential primary season, was no exception, except that there were slight emendations in intensity, at least for this viewer.

Everyone was true to form, except that we had excellent questioners this time around.

Mitt Romney seemed the most fluent, the least threatened and the most presidential. He avoided the frontrunner’s general weakness of playing prevent defense. If you watched Mitt in any of the debates, he is consistent, not adjusting his demeanor per the debate, as was done, for example, in the disastrous personality changes effected by Al Gore between debates in 2000. No major surprises, but his assurance that he will likely release his tax returns by April was reassuring. Finally the fight about Gingrich-Romney dueling misrepresentations in super PAC advertisements was put to rest when he asked Newt Gingrich if he (Gingrich) agreed that nothing could legally be done to affect their errant messages, and Gingrich…agreed!

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Gingrich, slightly mollified from the angry candidate who had changed first from the calm, accepting candidate who abjured personal attacks, is always effective when he attacks the liberal Obama Administration’s naïve progressive policies, such as the president’s maximizing “dependency.” His attacks on Ron Paul, such as for his analogizing Osama bin Laden to Chinese dissidents, were spot-on but reminiscent of the old cliché about shooting fish in a barrel.

Paul gave the most convoluted and rambling answer to a question in the history — including Ronald Reagan’s first debate in 1984 — of presidential debates or perhaps any national debates when asked whether he supported the United States’ going after bin Laden. People get nervous and distracted in debates, but I believe he just cannot articulate his opposition in a way that any general American audience would find palatable.

Rick Santorum, once again, the keeper of the conservative values flame, talked about the Democratic rejection of the lifestyle which brings success in the American dream, as articulated by the (surprise!) Brookings Institute: at least completing high school, working full-time and not having children out of wedlock.

Rick Perry was once again clear and articulate, if not eloquent. His attack on President Obama’s alleged war on organized religion was quite effective. But Perry’s race is over. He did so badly early on that he just cannot recover. Advice: don’t enter national debates until you are ready. Not profound advice, but generally true.

Finally, the questioners were all excellent, the first time that has been true but for Wolf Blitzer’s superintending of one of these debates. No one felt the need to be a “personality,” and Bret Baier, Juan Williams, Gerald Seib and Kelly Evans were all-substance, importantly substantive with excellent follow-ups, and smoothly fair to all participants – quite a feat.

Outcome: sorry, those who don’t want to hear it, but it is Mitt Romney’s race to lose, and he’s not going to lose it.

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

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