. . . in South Carolina last night. I had no real interest in watching it, to be frank, but I allowed myself to get hooked into watching a few clips. I do like the fact that there’s a wide field, and I’m not nearly as pessimistic about the selection of candidates as many — most! — of my fellow conservatives seem to be. But, while I was watching the candidates who bothered to show up for the SC debate, I couldn’t help being struck by something.
I’m not sure what it was, but it felt like what I imagine to be the Ambien experience. And I say that as someone who actually chooses to watch C-SPAN — three different ones, in fact. It’s not like I require lots of flashing lights and sirens to keep my attention focused. Yet, the longer I sat there watching, the more my mind turned to more pressing matters — like whether or not there was something better on TV.
That’s not to say I didn’t like any of the candidates, mind you. They all seemed likable and even showed flashes of humor. And none stood out so badly as to make me ask, “Good Lord, who let this guy go through with this? Doesn’t he have any friends at all?“ But bore me they surely did. A few takeaways:
Ron Paul: He’s not going to win. Everyone knows he’s not going to win. Even his biggest (MOST VOCAL!!!1!!1) supporters know he’s not going to win. So, stop asking questions centered around him winning. That’s not what he’s there for. He’s there to build a movement.
Tim Pawlenty: He needs to loosen up. Quite a bit. I’m not sure what’s going through his mind when he’s up on the stage, but the few minutes I saw him last night undid a great deal of the “Whoa, now, hold on a minute” reaction I had to his appearance on The Daily Show. I wondered at first why he chose to participate in this debate, and concluded it was a name recognition building exercise. Unfortunately, though he managed to get himself in front of a few new eyeballs, he didn’t do a thing to separate himself from the second-tier candidates he appeared with.
Herman Cain: Sharp guy with a knack for connecting with people through simple, plain-spoken language. He’s long on commonsense, but short on name recognition and political experience. Of all who participated, he probably did more for himself with South Carolina voters, who were effusive in their praise, than anyone else (if Frank Luntz’s whirligig machine is to be believed). There’s a lot to like about Herman Cain, though his supporters (and, apparently, South Carolina GOP voters) seem to like him more intensely than objective analysis would suggest.
Rick Santorum: A staunch pro-lifer and culture warrior, Santorum has the advantage of being a familiar name to many of the right’s most dependable activists and voters. He has a few obstacles to overcome, the biggest of which would be the beltway media’s conventional wisdom that he’s intellectually lacking. If he can deal with that, the next obstacle to overcome will be the perception that he’s merely serving as a vessel for the pro-life message rather than a candidate with expectations of actually winning. In that sense, he’s the anti-Paul: A candidate with a message that puts him squarely in the mainstream of conservative GOP politics, but a base of support that is far more wedded to issues than the candidate.
Gary Johnson: It’s hard not to like Johnson. As a libertarian-leaning conservative, the idea of voting for him isn’t at all inconceivable. He brings the libertarian mindset and governing history that I crave for in a candidate, without the Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderberg, New World Order, North American Union conspiracy mongering that inevitably rears its head when Ron Paul holds the floor for libertarianism. The strange thing about Johnson is that, despite being an obviously driven man, his manner of speaking doesn’t reflect it at all. He’s an engaging guy, but not a forceful public speaker. But, therein lies the risk that bedevils all shape-shifting politicians: overcompensation. Al Gore is a good example. You never know if you’re going to get Mr. Rogers or Mr. T or Mr. Goodbar with that guy.
Of course, I didn’t watch the whole thing. So, there may have been some stellar performances that I missed. But, this was for all intents and purposes a warm-up act of second-tier candidates — though, many consider Pawlenty a first-tier guy. If that’s the case, then it’s encouraging that he’s running like a second-tier candidate and not taking anything for granted. It also serves in a small way to blunt criticism of him as an “establishment” candidate, handpicked by the media.
The next debate should be a little more interesting (to nerds), if only for the fact that it’ll most likely have bigger personalities. You can count on Newt Gingrich the be there, I suspect. And he can generally be counted on to say or do something memorable. Then, there’s the (God forbid) possibility of Donald Trump showing up and showering the nation with expletives. But let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.