Around this time last year, I performed a short comedy routine at a political convention in Las Vegas. As I got off the stage, I found Michele Bachmann in the wings talking to reporters, having just finished a speech. Even though I wasn't a huge fan and she'd never met me before, I stopped to talk to her and she introduced herself and, of all things, gave me a hug and told me I'd done a good job.
It was a pretty remarkable first impression. I'm starting to suspect she's pretty amazing at making first impressions, especially if last night is any indication. Right out of the gate, the seven Republican nominees looked bland, boring, clad in almost identical tailored suits and white shirts, clutching almost identical notes about the economy, their jobs plans and their domestic and foreign policies. From the start they were looking to deepen their relationship with New Hampshire primary voters, national Tea Party activists and the rest of the Republican coalition that will decide which among them represents the party this fall. They were all destined to become carbon copies of each other.
(Credit Image: © Wang Fengfeng/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com)
But not Michele. Saving her campaign announcement in order to gain earned media during the debate, she shined as the most prepared, the most polished, and weirdly enough -- since like I said, I'm not entirely a fan girl -- the most presidential. It was like watching every expectation I had for her (and every pre-written joke about her Palin-like accent) just melt away in front of my eyes. The comedian was speechless. She was even more speechless when she noticed that Michele seemed not only genuinely qualified to be in the race, but downright giddy with excitement about it. I've never met a happy politician. Maybe that's what we've been missing all along.
As for the others, it was mostly the same. The two identical "front-runners" coming into the debate, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, both of whom look to have been packaged by the Mattel toy company in a box marked "President Ken," gave moderately good performances peppered with some big mistakes. Though for Romney, the sweat-stained panic-stricken moments of unpreparedness were comical. They gave some insight into the plastic mind of one of the era's most perfectly coiffed political figures -- and some clues into his humanity. Romney came across affable and in control, prepared to defend his healthcare decisions and, possibly, his android nature. I'm not a fan of him either, but I can't honestly say I thought he did poorly. In fact, if I had to judge whether I would vote for him just based on his performance last night, I'd say that, unlike previously, I was slightly more likely to vote for him over a dying houseplant.
Pawlenty, the purported second choice for prom, did something I simply can't understand. He simply rolled over and allowed Romney to be the top dog, refusing to take potshots at Romney over his "Obamneycare" failed Massachusetts healthcare plan, even when prompted by the moderator. Now, don't get me wrong, he did fine, but fine is only good when you're not surrounded by overperforming newcomers. Pawlenty desperately needs to define himself against Romney if he wants to be considered as a front-runner. Instead, he spent his time looking like he was running at least third or fourth. Behind Michele Bachmann. And Newt Gingrich, who, as usual, looked and sounded like he was delivering a speech to an alien landing party looking to hire him as their emissary to the American government.
No, I kid. Newt Gingrich wouldn't be looking to be employed as an alien emissary. He'd be looking to teach American history to the alien children in return for them making him king of their universe at some later date. They would, inevitably, turn him down, because he doesn't know how to select appropriate neckwear. Not that that matters either, since there's no possible way to hurt Newt Gingrich any further than his staff has this week, when they turned their resignation into a public relations nightmare by abandoning his campaign midweek, potentially to advise Texas governor Rick Perry about his 2012 prospects.
Okay, back to business. There were several other candidates who took the stage with the front-runners. Herman Cain, in his first major event, did well, but Cain found himself in the race because he was an entrepreneur and a successful businessman, and he too often got stuck on questions that didn't play to his strengths. He's strong on principle when it comes to domestic security and foreign policy, but his positions have yet to be fleshed out enough to speak about the coherently, or in such a way that doesn't make him look like he's incredibly new to the game.
Rick Santorum looked a little like he's been in an atomic bomb shelter since the late 1950s, totally aghast at the higher level his competitors are now operating on as compared to the last time he ran nearly a decade ago. It's pretty clear why he hasn't seen too much success since the advent of the libertarian and new media age. On a stage with people who are receiving up to the minute news on their Blackberries, Santorum seemed like a newspaper-on-his-front-doorstep kind of guy. He was tube television to their LCD flat screens. He's 1996 to their 2012, right down to the way he phrases his socially conservative beliefs. The era of pulpit-appropriate speeches is gone; the era of YouTube-appropriate speeches has dawned. He didn't look ready.
And Ron Paul was Ron Paul.
One of the interesting things I noticed about the questioning last night was that it sought to allow the candidates to define themselves against conventional assumptions about GOP candidates. Whether intentional or unintentional, John King was adamant about asking questions that were designed to reinforce stereotypes, particularly about the Tea Party. One of the biggest reasons that I felt Michele Bachmann defined herself against the field was that her approach to answering the question about whether she would be able to live up to Tea Party expectations; she, instead, defined for the audience what she felt the Tea Party stood for (economic freedom) and how she's embodied that in her position in Congress.
Honestly, while I'd love to say there was a clear winner last night (other than Michele Bachmann's chances), I can't. Everyone looked green and wobbly, and I can't fully say that the field is completely set, because after last night, it's clear someone could come in and change the dynamic. There's definitely room for an X factor candidate. It might not be Sarah Palin -- it'd be hard for her to show polish and accomplishment after last night -- but it's someone out there. We just have yet to find out who.
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