The Republican debate dispelled at least two clichés about American politics, that it is nastier than ever and that it is not substantive. For two hours, the Republican candidates had a civil and mostly informed debate about serious issues. Anthony Weiner did not come up once. The only light-hearted elements of the debate were brought in by moderator John King's "this or that" questions preceding and following the commercial breaks — "Ginger or MaryAnn?" joked the San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofoli.
My wife, who has relatively little patience for this stuff, looked at me in the middle of the debate and said that she was "somewhat impressed by most of these people." Mitt Romney later expressed a similar sentiment when he said that "Any of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama." That line encapsulated the tone of the entire evening, which was far more focused on attacking Obama than one other.
But King's questions about statements candidates had made in the past served as a reminder to candidates that in the age of Google, anything they say about someone who might be on a ticket with them could come back to haunt them later. For the most part, the candidates seemed aware of this, and they acted accordingly. Tim Pawlenty has been getting some grief about this in the Twitter-verse and in the blogosphere, as he passed on a chance to attack Romney directly on the health-care issue.
It was not just Pawlenty who avoided harsh attacks, though. All of the candidates passed on a chance to hit Romney on abortion, as they appeared to agree that any question of Romney's level of support for pro-life causes was a dead issue, which was likely welcome news in the Romney camp. Santorum, for his part, when given a chance to comment on Pawlenty's five-percent-growth plan, agreed with Pawlenty that we need to be optimistic.
Gingrich was the one exception to the tone of the evening, as he seemed to snap at Pawlenty twice. The first time was when Pawlenty took a question on right-to-work states and gave an answer that focused more on public-sector unions. Gingrich scolded him for not answering the question. The second time was when Pawlenty said, referring to a Gingrich response, that we should not be ending the space program. Gingrich jumped in and said, "You mischaracterize me." Gingrich also appeared rather grim, although it is hard to blame him after the week he has had. He did manage half smiles when the subject of space came up and when asked whether he preferred Dancing with the Stars or American Idol. On a more positive note, Gingrich showed a flash of the old, er, the young Newt when it came to immigration, as he criticized the false choice presented between expelling all illegals and giving amnesty to all.
From a technical standpoint, this may sound minor, but I thought Ron Paul's shirt and suit were both ill-fitting. As I have observed before, fairly or unfairly, the visual cues are important in a debate, and this is a relatively easy thing to fix. In addition, Herman Cain has got to come up with a better response to the question of whether he would allow Muslims in his administration. I also thought that Michele Bachmann took a risk in passing on her opportunity to talk about the Dodd-Frank law to announce that she was filing papers to run for president. The risk appeared to pay off, though, as her announcement gave her the first "Breaking News" alert of the night and generated its share of headlines in the post-debate coverage. The name of the game for most of the lesser-known candidates is to break out of the pack, and Bachmann garnered some wanted attention with her unconventional maneuver.
Overall, though, the debate did not really change the shape of the race, and its biggest impact may be that it provided contrary evidence to the notion that the Republican field is somehow less than serious. On the other hand, the evening did not exactly leave the participants battle-tested. When one of these candidates ends up facing off against President Obama, they can rest assured that he won't be fighting by this evening's Marquess of Queensberry rules.