Two factors dovetailed to make Thursday night’s Republican debate lively, occasionally cut-throat television: It was the final set-to before the Iowa caucuses and thus the candidates’ last chance to reach a wide audience, and it was hosted and broadcast by the Fox News Channel, which knew how to dangle the red meat in front of the seven participants.
I mean that last part as a compliment: If you’re going to stage a TV debate, it might as well be a rabble-rouser; candidates can use print interviews and their own writings to make their more subtle arguments. Sharp exchanges between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, and between Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, clarified where they stand on issues such as foreign policy and economics. Among the Fox host-questioners, Megyn Kelly deployed her background as a lawyer to ask a few questions about the role of the judiciary that provoked some vehement answers.
Staged, lit, and musically scored like a cross between The Voice and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the two hours started out genially enough, with Gingrich wishing the audience, “Merry Christmas to everybody” (subtext: “None of that liberal ‘Happy Holidays’ stuff for me!”). Perry, genial as all get-out, went off on an early Tim Tebow riff as a metaphor for how he’d triumph, concluding, “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses!” Paul drew laughs and applause by responding to a question as to which candidate is most likely to defeat President Obama, “Probably anybody up here can beat Obama!” Bachmann, perhaps courting a Wonder Woman image, declared, “I am an action person… I spent 50 years as a real person, and now I’m ready to go toe-to-toe against Barack Obama.”
Indeed, Obama quickly became a repeated target. Gingrich applied his usual label for the President — “a Saul Alinsky radical” — to the usual silence. (Hey, Newt, folks don’t know who Alinsky is, but kudos to you for spurring the audience to find out who he was.) Romney said Obama has “a foreign policy based on [saying] pretty-please” and that “his timidity and weakness invite aggression.”
While Perry coasted, looking more and more like a faded photograph as he complimented his opponents and even thanked them for making him “step up his game,” Bachmann came out swinging at Gingrich on everything from lobbying to right-to-life issues. When Gingrich tried to dismiss her as not having her facts straight, she got a tad huffy: “I’m a serious candidate for President of the United States and I have my facts straight.” This immediately moved her into Perry-terry-tory: I’m not gonna be the nominee, but dang it, I’m serious!
Gingrich, whom Romney repeatedly called “zany” in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, preempted any repetition of that adjective this night by joking that on this evening “I’ve been concerned about not appearing to be zany.”
Bret Baier, who cohosted along with Kelly, Chris Wallace, and Neil Cavuto, introduced a nicely zany bit himself, inviting viewers to tweet about “How well are the candidates answering the questions” using #dodge and #answer for their negative and positive responses, respectively. I’d like to have heard a rough estimate of how “#dodge” was doing in real time, but Baier never returned to this gimmick.