Another Republican presidential debate, another forceful performance by Mitt Romney. The subject was the economy, jobs, and finance—Romney’s strong suits—and he made the most of it, having more to say on those subjects and saying it more cogently than the other seven candidates.
When the rescue of major banks in 2008 and its aftermath was discussed, Romney took the lead. He explained why the $700 billion bailout was necessary to save the economy and the currency. Later, he insisted the massive regulations in the Dodd-Frank bill, passed last year, would crush small and community banks and dry up their ability to lend. On both issues, his opponents for the GOP nomination deferred to him.
There were two important differences between Tuesday night’s debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the previous three debates. For one thing, at least four of Romney’s rivals—Texas governor Rick Perry, U.S. representative Michele Bachmann, former senator Rick Santorum, and ex-House speaker Newt Gingrich—had impressive moments during the nearly 2-hour discussion.
While hardly a commanding presence, Perry dealt with issues more than adequately. He dwelled on energy and why it should be developed aggressively, but that made sense in this debate. He also defended his record as governor better than in earlier debates. Perry’s recovery, after three poor debates, probably staved off a further dip in polls.
The second difference was the hammering that President Obama took from all the candidates. In early debates, the president had scarcely been nicked. This time, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, characterized him as a weak leader who is in over his head. All of Obama’s policies meant to spur the economy and generate jobs have been wrongheaded, Romney said.
For the first time, businessman Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax reform plan drew criticism. Bachmann, for one, said the creation of a 9 percent national sales tax would likely be raised again and again. “Once you open a new revenue stream, you’re never going to get rid of it,” she said. Cain said his “bold” plan did what the others have failed to propose, replacing rather than tinkering with the tax code.
As usual, Cain was genial and likeable. But his repeated mentions of 9-9-9 began to get tiresome as the debate progressed. On other subjects, he had less to say.
As for U.S. representative Ron Paul, he said what he was expected to say: get rid of the Federal Reserve. When Cain cited Alan Greenspan as his favorite Fed chairman of past decades, Paul declared Greenspan a “disaster” and said the only chairman he could even tolerate was Paul Volcker in the early Reagan years.
Santorum had a strong finishing kick. He noted that a significant cause of the current economic downturn was the collapse of the American family. Fewer Americans now advance into the middle class than Europeans do. And while the poverty rate in two-parent families is 5 percent, it is 30 percent where only a single parent lives in the home.
Gingrich stayed mostly above the fray, even praising the others. He said that if the American economy gets back on track, China wouldn’t be able “to compete with us for 100 years.”
Utah governor Jon Huntsman was again the odd man out. His attempts at humor were lame, except when he disputed Santorum’s claim that Pennsylvania is the “gas capital” of the country. “Washington is the gas capital of the country,” Huntsman said.
The debate, conducted by the Washington Post and Bloomberg TV, lacked a decisive or dramatic moment. There was no sharp back and forth between Romney and Perry. But in a campaign dominated by nationally televised debates, the candidates won’t have a long wait. The eighth debate will be held in Las Vegas next Tuesday.