Heated GOP Debate Heavy on Catchphrases, Light on Policy

by Amy Kaufman

Last night’s Republican presidential debate revealed the new and contentious campaign style for the seven GOP participants.   The CNN event was highly emotional as the presidential hopefuls swapped personal attacks on tax policy, immigration and health care.  As expected, the newly coined front-runner Herman Cain (R-GA) was under immediate fire as fellow candidates attempted to poke holes in his 9-9-9 tax plan.  Rep. Bachmann (R-MN) gave her strongest performance to date as she showcased her expertise as a tax lawyer, drilling holes in Cain’s proposal.

As other candidates jumped on the bandwagon to debunk Cain’s plan, the godfather of pizza maintained his composure and signature humor throughout his defense.  Cain told fellow presidential hopefuls that their criticisms were misguided and inaccurate, like comparing ‘apples and oranges.’  Despite the heavy criticisms directed at Cain, his fellow candidates did little to outline their own proposals beyond the Party’s generic buzzwords and statistics.

Although initial attacks were directed at Cain, former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) was the main focus for second tier candidates as they assailed his record on health care and immigration. Throughout the debate, each participant denounced ‘Obamacare’ and government mandates, invoking the hackneyed catchphrases and tactics to relate health care reform to Romney’s gubernatorial mandate.  Both former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senator Rick Santorum  (R-PA) were particularly aggressive in their criticism of Romney’s health plan for Massachusetts. Santorum castigated Romney’s record saying, “Your consultants helped Obama craft Obamacare. And to say that you’re going to repeal it, you just — you have no track record on that that — that we can trust you that you’re going to do that.”  Gingrich also denounced Romney’s supposed proclivity for government mandates, to which Romney shot back, “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry also focused his energy on Romney, employing personal attacks to try and shake the Party’s consistent frontrunner.  The rival governors made no secret of their personal distaste for one another, as Perry accused Romney of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants for work on his home.  Romney’s immigration woes came under fire during the 2008 presidential race, and Perry’s attempts to unhinge him came off as feeble and unoriginal.  Romney was quick to return fire, telling Perry, “If there’s someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration that doesn’t stand up to muster it’s you, not me.”

Moderator Andersen Cooper attempted to neutralize the governor’s heated exchange by questioning other GOP candidates on their immigration stances and policy proposals.  The seven participants each employed similar responses which included some combination of ‘boots on the ground,’ increased virtual security and/ or a physical fence.

The CNN debate was a crucial a test for Perry and Santorum, who have delivered lackluster performances in the previous debates.  Unfortunately, neither candidate was successful in their attempts to discredit frontrunners Cain and Romney.  Gingrich continued his trend of referencing events twenty years passed, and he came off as more of a guest lecturer at a policy event than a politician campaigning for public office.  Michele Bachmann desperately attempted to regain traction following her continued nosedive in the polls, but beyond her answers on tax policy, she retreated to her tried and true Tea Party chants.  Rep. Ron Paul (R-TA) was the only candidate to largely remain above the fray, but the Congressman’s complicated, intellectual answers failed to resonate with audience members.

Cain and Romney both survived the debate as the Party’s top candidates, but for very different reasons.  Cain remains unshakeable despite the recent barrage of publicity and criticism.  His ability to remain calm under pressure combined with his humorous charm,  have helped Cain become a more-likable alternative for conservative’s unsatisfied with Mitt Romney.  Meanwhile Romney appears the most polished and well versed on realistic economic solutions, but his seemingly rehearsed approach has simultaneously left potential voters questioning his sincerity.

The tumultuous debate was easily the most entertaining of the series, but it lacked the structure and policy focus provided by previous Bloomberg-hosted event.  Almost all of the candidates revealed varying levels of desperation through their intense and personal criticisms of one another. The next debate is scheduled for November 18th, but at this point it is unlikely that candidates will be able to further influence voter’s perception for their own political gain if they continue favouring spouting their signature taglines over detailed policy solutions.

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