The organizers of Monday night’s Republican debate apparently knew what they were doing when they lined up presidential hopefuls across New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College stage in a way that reflected the contest’s pecking order and ideological shape.
In the center — politically, ideologically and physically — was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, looking very much the early front-runner polls say he is. Placed on the ends by the main sponsor, CNN, were former Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain, probably the most ideologically extreme in the solidly conservative field.
In between, two who seem more like interesting curiosities than true contenders — Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — and two Minnesotans who might have the best chances in this field of overtaking Romney.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann may have provided the first major debate’s lasting significance. Pawlenty, touted by many Republicans as potentially Romney’s top challenger, underscored his weak persona by refusing to repeat criticism of the latter’s Massachusetts health care plan.
By contrast, tea party favorite Bachmann, who combines a Sarah Palin-like personal appeal with a more traditional political approach, made a stronger impression by speaking directly and knowledgeably on the issues. The two Minnesotans loom as major rivals in next-door Iowa’s caucuses before New Hampshire’s primary.
The debate generally resembled an echo chamber, as participants repeatedly attacked President Barack Obama and avoided criticizing each another.
They showed some differences on social issues, including how the federal government should combat legalized gay marriage in states like New Hampshire, and whether to overturn Obama’s decision ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays.
Presidential debates often give the mistaken impression one person can single-handedly reverse U.S. policies. Gingrich, the closest thing to a truth-teller, essentially repeated his prior political assessment of the controversial GOP Medicare plan: “If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea.”
And he observed that to achieve its goals, the GOP needs to gain 12 Senate seats and 30 to 40 in the House — as well as win the presidency.
• Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.