Thursday night’s contentious debate opened the door to a new phase in the Republican Party’s nomination battle, as rivals engaged each other in arguments that will sharply define the choices voters face as they pick a challenger to President Obama.
The urgency of the straw poll here on Saturday sparked the first serious efforts by some of the leading Republican candidates to tear down the records of their opponents as they seek a victory in the campaign’s first real test.
But the dramatic shift in tone — by candidates who seemed suddenly unshackled from the timidity that had gripped them in two previous debates — foreshadowed the kind of nomination campaign that may unfold over the next year. It now seems clear it could be as rough and personal as the historic Democratic primary battle of 2008.
Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, who have each wagered their campaigns on the outcome of the straw poll, pulled no punches. Both came prepared with specific accusations about the failings of the other’s record, and neither was reticent about lodging them, often in biting language.
“If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us,” Mr. Pawlenty said to Mrs. Bachmann after listing a litany of Obama policies she tried — and failed — to stop.
The other rough exchanges of the night also helped reveal a field of Republican candidates that is far more divided on both policy and rhetoric than the relatively passive campaign to date would suggest.
Mitt Romney and his rivals clashed on health care and the appropriate power of state governments. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum raised their voices about the government’s role in containing a nuclear Iran. And Jon M. Huntsman Jr. chided his rivals for what he characterized as their irresponsible opposition to raising the nation’s debt ceiling at any cost.
But perhaps the most telling moments in the debate were the ones that offered a peek into what could be the durable narratives of the 2012 Republican nomination campaign.
Here are six such moments:
1. Passion vs. Competence — An exchange between Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Pawlenty might suggest one kind of political battle to come among the Republican candidates this year — passion versus competence.
Mrs. Bachmann asserted that “people are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting.” But Mr. Pawlenty countered with a critique of her efforts, saying, in essence, that she tilts at windmills with little chance of real success or effectiveness.
“Her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” he said.
That could end up being a lasting part of the Republican debate, all the way up to the party’s national convention next summer. Does the party want to nominate someone with a history of governing? Or someone who has demonstrated the willingness to engage in a street fight with the president?
2. “Obamneycare” — Mitt Romney, in spite of his front-runner status, escaped some of the sharpest exchanges. But if Mr. Romney thought he found a way out of his health care dilemma, Thursday’s debate was not encouraging. Mr. Romney struggled with a complicated answer to a tough question on the issue by Bret Baier, the Fox News moderator. And his rivals were only too happy to pounce when they got the chance.
“Obamacare was patterned after Mitt’s plan in Massachusetts,” Mr. Pawlenty said, happy for another chance to take the shot after ducking it at the last debate. “That’s why I called it Obamneycare, and I think that’s a fair label, and I’m happy to call it that again tonight.”
In May, Mr. Romney gave a long policy speech in which he hoped to put to rest questions about why he still supports his own health care legislation in Massachusetts, but opposes Mr. Obama’s similar plan. The debate on Thursday suggests that those questions remain.
3. Gender and Religion — When one of the panelists asked Mrs. Bachmann whether, as president, she would be submissive to her husband, he crossed into two areas that may continue to reverberate for months on the campaign trail: religion and gender.
As Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin both proved in 2008, the presence of female candidate in a presidential contest creates a different dynamic for all of the candidates. Would a male candidate have been asked a similar question about being submissive to his wife?
And the religious overtones in the question hinted at a continued theme in the campaign, not only for Mrs. Bachmann but also for Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, whose public embrace of religion has already become an issue as he joins the race.
4. Intervention vs. Isolation — Voters will have to decide which view of national security they want to embrace in their nominee. That choice was laid out pretty clearly by the exchanges between Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum.
“Stay out of their internal business,” Mr. Paul said, arguing against sanctions on Iran for trying to get nuclear weapons. “Don’t get involved in these wars. And just bring our troops home.”
But Mr. Santorum was just as passionate, saying of Mr. Paul that “anyone that suggests that Iran is not a threat to this country or is not a threat to stability in the Middle East is obviously not seeing the world very clearly.”
Neither Mr. Paul nor Mr. Santorum are doing very well in the national polls. But even if neither of them become the party’s nominee, their presence in the race for the next several months could help provide voters with competing visions of how Republicans might alter Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.
5. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs — At one point in the debate, Mr. Romney was asked a tough question about his past at Bain Capital, the venture firm that made the former Massachusetts governor wealthy. Mr. Baier asked whether actions taken by Mr. Romney while at the firm resulted in thousands of lost jobs.
His answer was that in business, things “don’t always go well” and he insisted that “in those 100 businesses we invested in, tens of thousands of jobs, net-net, were created.”
Mr. Romney’s Republican rivals did not follow up on the issue. But even as the Republican primary is just getting fully engaged, Mr. Obama’s allies are already taking aim at Mr. Romney’s record at Bain. The debate just confirmed that his record at the company is likely to remain an issue for months.
6. Read My Lips, No New Taxes — If there was one subject where everyone agreed, it was taxes. Mr. Baier asked all of the candidates to raise their hands if they would refuse to sign on to a legislative package that included $10 of spending cuts for every $1 of revenue increases.
They all raised their hands.
But the issue is not going away. By taking a hard-line stand opposing any taxes, the Republican candidates are quietly aligning themselves with the more conservative lawmakers in the Congress, while polls show that a majority of Americans want a deficit-reduction package to include new revenues, including taxes on wealthy Americans.
Tags: Republican Debate