Several Republican wannabe's gathered for a debate sponsored by The Examiner and moderated by the friendly folks at Fox News on Thursday night. Many of the questions were like 'red meat' tossed to a pack of vicious dogs and hungrily gobbled up by the candidates trying to prove their conservative credentials to the activist base of the party. One example that illustrates just how out of touch with America the GOP has become was asked by Fox News Special Report anchor Brett Baird. When asked if any of the prospective nominees would accept a budget deal that cut spending by $10 for every $1 in revenue increases, all of them said they would reject such a deal. Even Baird was not sure he heard them right and had to repeat himself. Now, maybe it is simply that the candidates felt they had to play to the base of the party. If not, however, it shows how ideology has been elevated above resolving the nation's fiscal problems. They'd be crazy not to accept a deal that reduced the deficit by $10 trillion just because it contained a $1 trillion revenue increase.
The highlight of the evening had to be the when Chris Wallace began questioning former Minnesota Governor Tim 'T-Paw' Pawlenty about some comments he had made about Representative Michele Bachmann's experience and ability to be president. The two candidates sniped back and forth at each other in a clear violation of Reagan's first maxim of politics: speak no evil of another Republican. In what is being called the 'Minnesota Melee' T-Paw had the best line when responding to Bachmann's claim of having led the fight against the stimulus package, against Obamacare, and against raising the debt ceiling (all of which passed Congress) when he said, "If that's your example of leadership, please, stop, you're killing us!" Of course, all this really avoids the bigger question about her experience. Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) harped on President Obama's lack of executive experience in 2008, claiming it made him unqualified to be president. Why isn't the same true of Rep. Bachmann? A double standard? Perhaps.
Much of the debate has no real meaning except that today in Ames, Iowa, 20,000 or more Republicans will participate in a straw poll indicating their preference for the GOP nominee to face President Obama in 2012. It is an exercise with very little predictive power. In 2007, Mitt Romney won the straw poll, Mike Huckabee won the caucuses a few months later, and, of course, John McCain won the GOP nomination. The straw poll, like the Iowa caucuses, serve to winnow the field of candidates. A candidate who does well in the straw poll will likely make it to the caucuses, where the top three usually continue on to NH and a few other primaries. A poor showing at the straw poll probably means a candidate has limited appeal and his/her viability is in question. Some candidates may even drop out of the race after the straw poll. Mitt Romney, recognizing the limited value of the poll and combined with his huge financial advantage over the other Republicans, has decided not to participate. This leaves Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul as the likely favorites. Which leads us to Governor Rick Perry.
Perry is poised to enter the race for the presidency today with a speech in Charleston, South Carolina. Whether his speech is designed to downplay the news that comes from Iowa (he won't win because he isn't on the ballot) or just coincidence, it injects a new element into the race. It also substantially reduces the likelihood of Michele Bachmann winning the GOP nomination, regardless of the outcome in Iowa, largely because they are both seeking support from many of the same Republicans, evangelical Christians. Given Perry's record of more than a decade of executive experience and evangelicals comprising an above average percentage of southern Republicans, Perry will likely do well among this group. Bachmann, on the other hand, has some questionable Christian credentials and ties to dominion theology. She also derives a large amount of support from the tea-party and serves as their pro-forma leader in the House.
What remains to be seen is how Perry will handle the demands of national campaign when everything in his record will be scrutinized, checked, and rescrutinized. While no stranger to the politics of personal destruction, he has never been subjected to them at the level that he soon will be. Nor has Bachmann. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been through it before. That experience, and his cash advantage, may be the difference in the race. Perry will do well among southerners and Christians, while Romney, a traditional Republican and Mormon, likely caries the northeast and mid-Atlantic. It should be an interesting primary season. I can't wait for the cold of January!