After the last GOP debate, I noted that the candidates were wearing kid gloves, and would need to get tougher in preparation for an eventual showdown with President Obama. Well, the kid gloves came off at last night's Republican presidential debate, thanks in large part to some tough questions from the panel assembled by Fox News and the Examiner. Even Fox critics, like the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik, were impressed with the job Fox did. The panelists asked tough, focused, well-researched questions, and dispelled any notion that Fox might take it easy on the GOP. In doing so, the panelists may have harmed their chances at being asked to participate in one of the bipartisan debates in the fall of 2012, as I can't imagine Obama's handlers wanting to subject him to any of last night's questioners.
In terms of the candidates, who are the reason we pay attention to the debates (to the extent that we do), they are past the stage where preparation is a problem. At this point, it is much more about presentation, and here, Mitt Romney once again won by maintaining his front-runner status. He appeared to be above the fray, and avoided getting hit by any tough blows. Tim Pawlenty had a somewhat funny shot about willing to mow anyone's lawn, except Mitt Romney's huge one. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, the crack evoked an image of Pawlenty mowing Romney's lawn, which is not the image Pawlenty is seeking.
Pawlenty had other problems as well. He seemed to be dragged down by his mano-a-mano on Minnesota legislative history with Michele Bachmann, who remains admirably cool under fire. Newt Gingrich rehabilitated himself somewhat with a strong showing, reminding me of the Gingrich idea machine of yore. With Gingrich, it is important to remember that the last debate came immediately after his top staff had deserted him, and it is not surprising that he turned in a better performance tonight.
In the second tier, Rick Santorum was a missing man for much of the debate, even noting at one point how little attention he was getting. Herman Cain was slammed with a lengthy question from Chris Wallace detailing a series of gaps in his knowledge. The question seemed to be asking: do you know your stuff? Cain had a good response about only getting a minute to answer all that, but the question reinforced his long-shot status. Ron Paul showed again that he was out of the mainstream of GOP foreign policy thinking by appearing to be blasé about Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
I leave Huntsman for last, as he seemed to be on a stage of his own, with perhaps the least interaction with his rivals of any of the candidates. I was pleased that he raised school choice as an issue, thought he lucked out on getting asked why he served the Obama administration as Ambassador to China — cue the patriotism response — and noticed that he ducked the question about Huntsman Corporation creating more jobs abroad than in the U.S.
Overall, the candidates need to keep their eyes on the prize. Obama remains the issue, and after the terrible month he has had, it is more important than ever to make sure that his 2012 opponent is someone who can take tough shots and keep on coming. Last night's debate put the candidates to the test in that regard.