Observations on the New Hampshire Debate: Cain Impresses, Romney Holds Strong, Others Falter

Last week’s GOP presidential debate hosted by Bloomberg and The Washington Post at Dartmouth College continued to reveal an emerging storyline of this election cycle. A few observations:

Herman Cain continues to impress. This guy has moxie, folks. He knows what he believes and why he believes it. One attendee in the audience last week told me Cain has a presence when in the room, and there’s something refreshing (if cavalier) about his approach and the way he argues his points. There were a few slip-ups, but overall, it was a solid performance, and his trajectory continues to rise.

Some seem surprised that Herman Cain is now the frontrunner, but it make perfect sense. What Cain represents is something that has been severely lacking in political leadership, and that is common sense. Interestingly enough, the vast majority of people in this country still have a modicum of common sense, which explains why his poll numbers continue to rise as more people become aware of him. Many politicians appear to have some common sense when they first go to Washington and than rapidly lose it due to the influence of special interest groups, including organized political parties. If Mr. Cain can resist contamination by traditional Washington influences, he may prove to be just what our nation needs for restoration to greatness. John Huntsman and Rick Santorum continued their downward slides, each for different reasons. Huntsman looks like he’s still running for chief cheerleader of any country but the United States. Yes, he was ambassador to China and he has some good points to make, but this is America, Governor, and you should defend America and our policies first and foremost. I didn’t sense that in his arguments Tuesday night. For Santorum, his style and answers were more middle-of-the-road, and that won’t last in a field of eight challengers.

While Newt Gingrich had the most applause lines, his arrogance and “I’m smarter than these guys” attitude still shows through, and that’s unfortunate. It kept appearing like he wanted to host a lecture in front of Dartmouth students more so than entangle with his colleagues on stage. I can’t figure out the former House Speaker. This second-tier candidate just doesn’t know when to put his best strengths forward while tempering his enormous ego. While campaigning in Iowa recently, Gingrich apparently told a crowd in the Hawkeye State the biggest reason to vote for him over his GOP rivals isn’t his ideas or even his new Contract with America; they should because, gosh-darnit, he’s just plain smarter than the rest.

Huh?

“[I]f you watch them and watch me,” Gingrich told Iowans, “the difference in the depth of knowledge and the difference in the ability to debate Obama, the difference in actually having done it at the national level…I’m a pretty good mechanic who knows how to fix the car and the other folks are good at selling it. They’re nice people, but they don’t have the knowledge to do something like this on this scale. This is enormously complicated.”

What humility. What demurring decency. And this guy says he’s a populist? A man of the people? Which group, the Megalomaniac Society of America?Gingrich is following suit, and it doesn’t suit him well at all. This is the same candidate who, by the way, railed against the Ryan Medicare plan, only to apologize in less than 24 hours with a less-than-savvy response. Yeah, that’s smart alright. It won’t take long for voters to realize that perhaps Gingrich is the wrong man for the job precisely because he thinks he and he alone can go up against President Obama. That’s one of the President’s largest weaknesses, his propensity to talk down to average Americans–to lecture them as though he is the Omniscient One.

Rick Perry was a “plotted plant” to quote one attendee last week. I was surprised. Many pundits felt Perry needed to come out swinging, gain some of the ground he lost, and use this debate to pivot to the economic plan he touted but didn’t discuss during the last debate. That’s not good enough, not right now in October when the New Hampshire primary is but a few months away. Perry is no longer the frontrunner, and he needs to start acting a bit more aggressive in how he challenges Romney. His continual return to “energy independence” and how that will singularly turn this country around is farsighted at best and naïve at worst. I expected more from the firebrand governor Tuesday night, but it looked like he had lost any fire whatsoever.

Reps. Bachmann and Paul were sort of fixtures in the room, each making their own respective points (about the Fed and Dodd-Frank, etc.), but none landed any major blows, nor did they try and throw any. And, for that reason, they lost ground. When Bachmann told viewers to go to her website for her economic plan, that went over with a thud.

Finally, Mitt Romney had one of his better performances to date. His command not only of his economic plan but of those at the table was impressive. He didn’t seem eager for anything, measurably responding to questions and attacks with plastic grace–but grace nonetheless. I have to believe (and hope) he will loosen up for the mainstream independent vote he will certainly need during a general election, should he be chosen. But as several reporters told me recently, it’s increasingly looking like Romney will be the nominee. He has miles to go–a good showing in Iowa and a win in the Granite State, for starters–but it’s fair to say the Governor looked very presidential last week.

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