The Republican Debatapalooza Review
It’s only fitting after posting, The Republican Debatapalooza Preview yesterday that a follow-up review is warranted. Overall both debates were very close to expectations but noticeably without the real fireworks I thought we might see given the circumstances. It appears that the field has either accepted Mitt Romney as the de facto nominee or they are at a loss as to an attack strategy that has real teeth.
Last night’s ABC News / Yahoo News / WMUR debate was particularly unenlightening as the combination of inane questions from the moderators and apparent unwillingness to take the fight to Romney allowed him to walk away with an easy victory. Every candidate had some good moments but also stumbled at inopportune times, and generally the event was more like an amateur flyweight undercard bout than the professional heavyweight title fight I thought we’d see.
This morning’s NBC / Facebook debate started with an air that portended of a slugfest, aided in part by an aggressive posture from moderator David Gregory, but alas faded quickly after the first break at the 20 minute mark. The remaining hour or so turned back into the same toothless exchange we witnessed on Saturday night. There were a few attempts to take it to Mitt but he quickly demonstrated, albeit with a few flubs, that nobody in this field is quicker to throw a vicious elbow when assailed.
Whether it’s Romney’s ability to reasonably repel any attacks through humor and a deft pivot to his own attacks on Obama, or that the field is afraid of being on the outside looking in once Romney locks up the nomination is hard to say. It may well be some of both but the net effect is nobody gained any ground on Mitt and time is running out quickly. A big New Hampshire win followed by likely victories in South Carolina and Florida, and Romney just runs the table to Tampa.
As to the rest of the field Gingrich did little to separate himself from Santorum which I believe was a tactical error. Santorum did nothing to better position himself for the next two primaries. Paul may have helped himself with his committed base but didn’t pick up any meaningful new votes. Perry showed some initial momentum and looked like he may actually make a move on Gingrich, Paul and Santorum but he faded in the end. Huntsman also showed early promise but finished with a Chinese whimper.
New Hampshire results now clearly look like Romney, followed by Paul, Gingrich, Santorum, Huntsman and Perry in that order. Huntsman and Perry will lose ground before the voting actually starts as many of their original followers will defect to Romney, Gingrich or Santorum where they feel their vote may count.
There are two possibilities that could reshape the race before South Carolina but I’m not giving short odds on either occurring. Barring one of the following things happening, Romney stands poised to win in SC and roll-on to Florida for his “nominee elect” coronation.
First, but incredibly unlikely is Gingrich or Santorum drop out giving the other a chance to coalesce the vast majority of votes that would become available. Odds of that happening are so long it’s hardly worth mentioning but it would be a game-changer. On a similar but meaningless level, Huntsman and Perry dropping out, as they could, will free up a handful of votes but they’ll end up being split amongst the remaining candidates so equally there’s no impact.
Second, is the possibility of Sen. Jim DeMint endorsing Gingrich or Santorum instead of Romney, as I have predicted he will before this week is over. A DeMint endorsement for Newt or Rick could have significant effect on the outcome in South Carolina but Sen. DeMint is also no dummy and he knows the risks to his career if his endorsement goes to a loser in his home state. I’d put the odds on the DeMint endorsement at 60% he goes with Romney, 30% he passes on any endorsement and 10% he backs Gingrich or Santorum. That’s a 90% probability in Mitt’s favor, bad odds for rest of the field.
There are two more debates, oh thank God because we need more debates, before South Carolina goes to the polls but if Gingrich or Santorum can’t muster what it takes to knock Romney down a couple rungs the outcome is a fait accompli. I don’t know what it will take since Romney seems to be more Teflon than Velcro so little sticks to him, but I do know if they can’t slow the Romney juggernaut they may as well start jockeying for their preferred position in a Romney Administration.