by Joe Shea
January 9, 2012
ROMNEY GOOFS AT CRITICAL MOMENT
BRADENTON, Fla., Jan. 8, 2012 -- Bracketed by debates Saturday night and Sunday morning, and with the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, the six Republican candidates for their party's presidential nomination had little time to prepare. Yet they were out in force all day Saturday, all over the state at crowded rallies where they seemed to command respect and popularity. On Tuesday morning, however, we will learn that was not the reality.
The debate, one of the more testy in the long series that began last Summer, famously wasted "15 minutes" - one candidate's count - on whether or not states could ban contraceptives, which, as former Mass. Gov. and still front-runner Mitt Romney said, "they don't want to." Romney's answer was a non-sequitur - that the courts should overturn Roe v. Wade. In the process, though, Romney managed to humiliate George Stephanopoulos, the moderator of ABC's flagship Sunday talk show, "This Week," by repeatedly pointing out that the moderator was asking whether the Supreme Court should outlaw contraceptives or if states should have the right to do so when there was no substantive debate about that anywhere.
The most interesting sequence in the debate was the discussion that occurred between former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (for two years the Obama Administration's Ambassador to China) and Gov. Romney on China. Romney charged that Huntsman's call for a civil tone in dealings with China belied his two years as President Obama's representative there. Mocking the point and implicitly, a discredited ad that mentioned his adopted Chinese children, at one point Huntsman even started speaking Chinese.
"Only half the audience understands Mandarin," one of the moderators quipped after the debate ended.
In the interim, the six candidates talked about how definitively the U.S. should confront Iran, what good roads and bridges - infrastructure - mean to business and trade, and judging from its absence from debate questions and answers, how little education means. Romney again displayed a depth in his: he recites the second paragraph of the document and talks not of "inalienable" rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", as Jefferson did in his earliest drafts of the Declaration - the version most of us know - but of "unalienable" rights, as the Founding Fathers finally revised Jefferson's language to read. "Unalienable" rights are believed to be inherent to an individual and cannot be sold or transferred as "inalienable" rights may be. Note: An earlier version of this article concluded Mr. Romney's use of "unalienable" was an error. It was not, and we regret the mistake.
For Romney, it was ultimately a flawless debate, and not a very difficult one. Where the Huffington Post headline predicted a "brutal" night for Romney, Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, said the White House would be delighted by the outcome because the debate made Romney out to be the "weakest candidate" - "because he was the only one the other candidates didn't attack."
It was unclear how that made sense, but Romney did not offer an easy or inviting target. He turned back criticism arising from the tale of a company his Bain Capital had taken over, stripped of cash and closed, according to the reading of a New York Times story earlier last week as Newt Gingrich characterized it, with his familiar and true answer: not all companies people invest in make it, and some, like Bain's creation of the Staples office-supply chain, make it big.
Ron Paul was sometimes weaker than he has been, and cameras showed a worried-looking Mrs. Paul in the audience. Paul ran into less heat than might be expected for his hands-off policy toward Iran, but he did seem petty and vindictive as called Rick Santorum "a big-spending individual." Santorum struck back hard, and Gingrich jumped in later, saying Paul frequently makes false charges against people.
In Gingrich's case it was the charge by Ron Paul that he is a "chicken hawk," a phrase describing men who use young male prostitutes, because Gingrich sought a deferment from Vietnam. Gingrich was obviously angered when hostess and moderator Diane Sawyer mentioned the phrase and asked Paul to repeat it. Gingrich, an Army brat whose father spent 27 years in the service, would have none of it. He said he was ineligible for the draft during Vietnam because he was married and had a child.
If there was a winner, it was Romney. He was untouched by anything other candidates said. Gov. Perry, as always, was probably the loser, saying he would send troops back to. He also said Iran was moving into Iraq - they have always been strongly allied with Prime Minister Noory al-Maliki - "at the speed of light." That bit of hyperbole was too fast for many.
The back-to-'raq statement was the biggest blunder of the debate, but the strongest impression was probably left by the contrast between Huntsman's desire for a fundamentally diplomatic approach to trade problems with China, and the more aggressive approach Romney indicated he would take, which Huntsman said would invite a "trade war" with very harmful consequences for the American economy. It was a meaningful and sometimes heated discussion, and about all you can ask for at Republican debate.
AR Correspondent Joe Shea covered the New Hampshire primary in that state in 2004, and has lately been fixated on Republican campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is a Democrat and serves on the Manatee County Democratic Executive Committee. Write Shea at email@example.com.