Thursday, January 19, 2012

Another win for Newt: Observations while not live-blogging tonight's Republican debate in South Carolina

I'm not live-blogging, but I'm watching closely, with another eye on American Idol, on this perhaps the most important day of the 2012 Republican presidential race so far.

Quick impression: Newt, as expected, is doing exceptionally well, while Romney, as usual, is playing what in football would be the most preventative of prevent defences, doing everything he can to avoid a gaffe, saying nothing of substance, resorting to his usual talking points, most of them ridiculously anti-Obama (his default position to deflect attention away from his own positions and appeal to the anti-Obama right) being anything but a persuasive, dynamic leader -- anything but genuinely presidential and more like some sort of presidential caricature as performed by some sort of robot programmed by aliens who base their understanding of what is presidential on two-dimensional stereotypes.

(UPDATE: Here are my grades for the debate -- In a vacuum, Santorum (A-) won. But Newt (B+) did what he had to do to keep his surge going and to deflect attention away from Marianne and his even worse past than we thought. Romney (C) was typically mediocre and unimpressive. Paul (B-) was okay but seems less and less relevant. In the end, Newt was the winner if only because he will benefit the most from a strong performance.)

I'm also following Andrew Sullivan, who is doing some very fine live-blogging tonight (as usual). Here are a few of his finer observations, in reverse chronological order, with my comments in blue italics.

-- "Why can't Romney once - just once - directly answer the question asked, instead of insisting on saying what he wants to say first? It's deeply irritating and underlines his too-polished, too arrogant affect. And then he forgets even what the actual question was in the first place. Then he segues into a bizarre attack on Newt's relationship with Reagan. He lost it back there. It's his worst performance yet - at the very moment he needs to deliver his best." (It was just Romney being Romney. What else is new?) (9:00 pm)

-- "Buzzfeed says that Newt won the debate in the first five minutes. There's still some time to go but that's my impression as well. Romney is being flattened tonight. Santorum's brutal, relentless attacks, Newt's ccontempt, Paul's jocular indifference... they all contrast with classic, mindless robo-speak from Mr Plastic." (That's a shorter way of saying what I said above: "classic, mindless robo-speak.") "Now Gingrich has ambushed him on his tax returns. This is what South Carolina always does. It's sometimes necessary to look away before the feeding frenzy ends. But the result is always bloody. Romney's sinking. He's sinking." (But will he sink far enough for Newt to win on Saturday? With such a decisive win here, there's hardly any doubt the Newt surge will continue. But what about the Marianne G. interview later? That could quickly derail his astonishing comeback.) (8:48 pm)

-- "A classic Gingrich phrase: 'Mildly amazing.' Classic passive aggression from the 'shy boy' who's now so angry he explodes spontaneously. Then Newt tickles the Southern g-spot, by saying that his debating Obama will be a battle between 'knowledge' and a 'TelePrompTer.' I don't think Newt realizes how his contempt and condescension toward Obama is riddled with racism." (He recoils in horror and then lashes out whenever he's faced with the racism charge, but he has a long record of this sort of racially-charged rhetoric.) (8:44 pm)

-- "Santorum hones his manufacturing working class economic chops in a very deft and indrect criticism of Romney's kind of capitalism. A very effective performance. They're all on tonight, it seems. But Gingrich's spirited, angry, anti-media rant at the start towers over the rest. (Yes, Santorum has been typically strong: confident and coherent. But I'm just not sure it matters anymore. At this point, unless Newt completely tanks as a result of the Marianne interview tonight, all Santorum will be doing by staying in the race is dividing the anti-Romney vote and hindering Gingrich's chances of knocking off the frontrunner. Still, while I don't agree with him on, well, on anything, I've got to credit him with an impressive performance ever since he surged up the polls pre-Iowa. He has way too much baggage, but if he'd been seen as a serious contender much earlier in the race, he might have been a potent conservative alternative to Romney, everything Perry and Bachmann were not.) (8:30 pm)

-- "Gingrich is on a roll - rattling off a list of South Carolina issues, including the port of Charleston. Then he quickly and effectively summarizes a core case against the dodgy practices of Bain Capital. Romney then tries to avoid answering the direct question about Bain and seems to conflate 'crony capitalism' with Democrats' relationships with the union. He does not address the core issue of how you make millions off bankrupting companies." (I don't see the Bain attacks hurting Romney all that much in the GOP primaries, given that he can position himself as a successful capitalist and where there is little concern for the poor and disadvantaged, or for income inequality, or for justice, but this could come back to haunt him in the general election, with independents particularly.) (8:20 pm)

-- "Newt's response to the open marriage is turned into a tour de force against the media. He calls John King's questions 'as close to despicable as I can imagine.' The crowd loves it. The first response as to whether he wanted to talk about it: 'No, but I will.' Perfect. Then he rounds on King and gets another standing ovation. I think he may have won the primary tonight with that response." (You knew this was coming, and I wrote about it earlier: Newt always tries to turn the tables by going after the media.) (8:12 pm)

The wildest day of the campaign so far keeps exceeding expectations. And we still have the interview to come. Crazy.

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