Saturday, February 6, 2016
By Reed Galen
Quote by a Smart Person: “I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out observations.” Charles Darwin
Welcome to the American Singularity.
Last night was the final time New Hampshire voters would get to see the Republican presidential field on stage together before polling begins on Tuesday. The conventional wisdom ahead of the debate, that Marco Rubio’s momentum needed to be stopped, and thereby made him the main target of the evening held true. The first half of the debate featured several confrontations between Gov. Chris Christie and Rubio that, for the first time, left Rubio on the losing end of the exchanges.
Donald Trump was at his Trumpiest. Senator Ted Cruz was translucent most of the evening; visible on stage but barely so. That was probably fine with him as New Hampshire is not his turf. He needed to avoid any substantial damage. And with the exception of an early revival of his campaign’s dirty tricks re: Dr. Ben Carson, he sailed through the evening.
Dr. Ben Carson is a very smart man. However, he is not going to be the Republican nominee. His best trait is making jokes at his own expense and achieving a chuckle from the audience. Dr. Carson belongs on the lecture circuit, sharing his philosophy on life, faith and the United States, not on a debate stage where he is both uncomfortable and unprepared.
Senator Marco Rubio is a huge football fan. His campaign has produced a number of videos of him throwing a football, catching a football and otherwise discussing his love of the game. If last night was a playoff game for Rubio, he suffered too many turnovers early in the contest. His inability to breakout of a pre-programmed line about President Obama started as off-key and ended up as YouTube videos (and ultimately attack ads) about his perceived unpreparedness for the job of President.
Once he was able to breakout of the the self-inflicted repetition and get free of Chris Christie’s direct and Jeb Bush’s more oblique attacks, he gave the solid answers we expect from Rubio in a debate setting. And we should also remember that, much like Iowa, Rubio has not been expected to win in New Hampshire – but his momentum appeared strong and was a bigger story out of Iowa than even Ted Cruz winning the caucuses. High expectations set, Rubio has to hope his youth, charm and energy are enough to convince Granite Staters to keep him on the podium Tuesday night.
The Governors Awaken
Finally sensing the cliff-like nature of Tuesday’s election, the three big state governors – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich each came alive in their own ways. Bush was as energetic and forceful as he’s been in any debate. He actually got a body blow past Donald Trump’s defenses as they sparred over the arcane (but very important) issue of eminent domain. Christie is a natural pugilist and made sure he used his early opportunities and energy to maximum effect. The reports of the Christie and Bush camps ganging up on Rubio, whether coordinated or not, allowed each man to use his best talents to strike out at the Florida senator for most of the first half of the debate.
John Kasich, who has done more than 100 town hall meetings in New Hampshire (that’s right 100!) was made his closing arguments to Republicans, Independents and Democrats watching the debate. Kasich has staked his campaign on doing well in New Hampshire, as have all of the governors. Although they were collectively at their strongest last night, it still remains unlikely that more than one of them can head to South Carolina next week as a truly viable contender.
What Does It All Mean?
Rubio had a rough night. Christie was on the prowl. Trump held serve. Bush was better – but was it enough? Cruz took a step back to avoid fire. Also noteworthy, when the moderators served up a softball to Cruz re: Trump’s temperament, Cruz wouldn’t take the shot. Having watched the Cruz campaign for months now, and seeing how calculating a candidate he is, I call that a tactical decision to refuse giving battle than a sign of strategic weakness (a la Tim Pawlenty 2011.)
Media outlets repeatedly made sure we knew that nearly a third of the New Hampshire electorate has not made up their minds regarding for whom they will vote on Tuesday. Assuming that some or all of those voters actually watched a Saturday night debate, or have seen them in person at some point recently, they should have a good sense of their choices.
On Tuesday, New Hampshire is likely to create more uncertainty and chaos in the GOP race; certainly they won’t coronate a Ted Cruz, but who will they give, if anyone, a true boost going into South Carolina? I thought Trump had surged ahead in Iowa and was proven wrong. He’s well ahead in the second nominating contest – hard to see how Saturday night would damage that position. His question again comes down to whether or not enough voters will actually show up to pull the lever for Donald J. Trump.
A Parting Note On Event Management
I am an old, old advance man. Toe marks, podiums, backdrops and off-stage announces were the central organizing principles of my life for several years. Watching the beginning of the debate last night, with poor Ben Carson stuck in an off-stage hold area, with Trump then standing behind him was gut wrenching to watch. Then they flat out nearly forgot to announce John Kasich. I’m not sure what happened, but that was Debate 101.
Next, let’s talk how long these things are taking. The debate was supposed to start at 8 pm Eastern and last 90 minutes. It started late and ran until nearly 11 o’clock. It’s enough with the 16 commercial breaks and the quarter-by-quarter analysis. The networks are selling as much ad inventory as they can against these things. The campaigns need to step up, once again, and get the process back in line. These aren’t NFL games where there are 60 minutes on the game clock but three hours blocked on television. It’s a loose, sloppy way to run debates and should be tightened up as the field narrows further and the stakes become infinitely higher.