Evaluating Candidate Performance in the New Hampshire Republican Debate

When 300 reporters show up to cover a political event, you know it is important. This is what happened last night in New Hampshire at the first GOP primary debate. The extraordinary media presence represents a sign of the press interest in the presidential campaign and recognition that the New Hampshire debate signals the informal start of the Republican nominating process.

In an uncertain field with a large number of candidates who are not well known nationally, early televised encounters are important because preliminary impressions matter. Debates, ads, and campaign speeches can affect how voters, reporters, and donors think and act, and how they assess each presidential aspirant. 

The key things to watch in any debate are who stands out of the crowded field, who makes arguments that resonate with primary voters, and what personal impressions are likely to stick with voters. A number of the candidates performed well in making arguments about job creation, health care, the auto bailout, food safety, and foreign policy. 

But there were individuals who stood out on particular substantive or personal dimensions. Through policy statements, personal appeals, or non-verbal communications, some candidates helped themselves while others did not. Below, I review how well candidates performed on issues or personal dimensions likely to be important with voters. 

Most Articulate: The most articulate candidate was Minnesota House member Michele Bachmann. She was clear and focused in her remarks and drew one of the strongest applause lines when she boldly stated that President Barack Obama was going to be a one-term president. She performed well by informing voters about her five children and 23 foster children, and using then Senator Obama’s statement opposing an earlier increase in the country’s credit limit to justify her own current opposition to raising America’s debt ceiling without significant spending reductions. She made a strong critique of the president’s Libyan policy by saying we should be the head and not the tail in foreign policy, and shouldn’t be deferring to France. With her strong performance, she made conservatives forget about Sarah Palin. 

Most Presidential: The individual who came across in the most presidential manner was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He displayed a strong command of the issues, presented his ideas clearly, and defended himself well on his Massachusetts health care reform. When asked about raising the debt limit, he effectively turned the question around and asked “where are the president’s ideas” and complained that Obama has not led on balancing the budget or creating jobs. However, he needs to work on his answer regarding the Afghanistan war. His debate performance was stronger on domestic than foreign policy.

Greatest Missed Opportunity: Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty blew a golden opportunity to draw a clear contrast with Romney on health care when he was asked about his Sunday criticism about “Obamneycare.” Rather than answer the question directly, Pawlenty refused to repeat his comment and draw a clear contrast over the individual health care mandate. By ducking his own statement from a day earlier, Pawlenty came across as weak and evasive.

Most Principled: In a field with several candidates who have reversed positions on major issues, Texas Congressman Ron Paul came across as the most principled in taking clear and consistent positions on issues such as the Federal Reserve, the importance of a strong dollar, same-sex marriage, eminent domain laws, foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, deficit reduction, and the country’s high debt levels.   

Best One-Liner: Romney’s note to the New Hampshire audience midway through the debate that the Boston Bruins were leading their Stanley Cup hockey match by 4 to 0.

Worst Body Language: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich needs to work on his non-verbal communication. With his scowls and unfriendly facial reactions, he came across as overly harsh and not very likable. Perhaps he needed more time on the Greek islands or more help from a campaign staff.

Most Pro-Business: Businessman Herman Cain took strong pro-business stances on everything from tax cuts, repatriating profits, and reducing the role of government. For those who believe the private sector is efficient and effective at creating jobs, Cain helped himself and filled a real niche in the nominating process.

Strangest Foreign Policy Critique: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum presented a rousing critique of Obama’s foreign policy by saying we had a failure of leadership, America had turned its back on allies, and the country overall had displayed a sense of fecklessness. The only problem is his first ad is going to have to explain to the American public what that word means. 

Most Novel Epithet: Pawlenty found a new way to criticize Obama’s foreign policy by labeling the president a “declinist,” meaning someone who accepted America’s weakening world and economic role. Pointing to China and Brazil, Pawlenty claims the U.S. should have a 5 percent economic growth rate.

Biggest Political Mistake: Former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman for skipping the debate and missing a golden opportunity to explain to New Hampshire voters why he deserves their support. Since he and Romney occupy similar political space, Huntsman has to do well in New Hampshire to have a serious shot at the nomination. Missing the first debate in the Granite State will not endear him to voters in that part of the country.