Romney wins on points, but Bachmann will shake-up the GOP race

Monday’s winners? Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann. The losers? The rest of the field, and of course, CNN.

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Bachmann at the CNN debate
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Ewan Watt
On 20 June 2011 11:13

CNN’s appalling debate format (“Elvis or Johnny Cash?”) – moderated by John King and his ghastly grunts – did very little to prepare the candidates for the rigors of the campaign trail, except of course for those awkward encounters with farm animals at the Iowa State Fair.

In addition, CNN’s bizarre decision to invite Herman Cain and record breaker Rick Santorum, and not New Mexico’s former Governor Gary Johnson, is still a little perplexing. Not only does Johnson possess a stellar list of achievements from his two terms as governor, notably the near impossible accomplishment of getting Medicaid costs under control, but he is also the only declared candidate to possess favorable approval ratings in his home state.

The debate’s winner, however, was Mitt Romney. His every answer was accomplished, even if he does continue to squirm a little when asked to defend his health care plan.  Time will tell whether his “10th amendment” polemic defending this policy will succeed. Of course, things could have been a little different. Presented with the opportunity to justify his use of the pejorative “Obamneycare” (get it?) on Fox News Sunday, Tim Pawlenty retreated, blaming President Obama’s admiration for Romney’s plan rather than dissecting the governor’s record. Romney could only look on with that famous Hollywood-grin as Pawlenty demonstrated the type of indecision the GOP base will struggle to forgive.

It was Pawlenty’s moment and he choked.  Like Hasim Rachman against Lennox Lewis a decade ago, Pawlenty was presented with a clear knock-out opportunity. Unlike Rachman, Pawlenty threw in the towel. Although his answer regarding the separation between church and state was impressive and may have redeemed himself with some constitutional conservatives, he may never get the chance to knock Romney down again and define his candidacy.

And yet, although Romney’s accomplished performance puts him in the driving seat for the nomination, the candidate who gained the most was undoubtedly Representative Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, the charismatic Iowan and darling of the Tea Party was highly impressive. In the most part she was able to successfully articulate her stance on key issues that don’t necessarily lend themselves to the often used “crackpot” stereotype some sections on the media try to tar her with. That being said, she did give a somewhat erratic response to whether she supported a federal marriage amendment. 

Unlike Pawlenty, Bachmann demonstrated how to command a stage. And this is critical given the North Star State’s proximity to Iowa, especially the areas that receive the same TV and radio coverage. Both Pawlenty and Bachmann have to either win or have a robust showing in Iowa to survive to Round II. In fact, given that he has struggled to carve out a niche within the GOP, it’s hard to see how Pawlenty can surge without winning in Iowa. 

And here’s a prediction:  Bachmann will win Iowa.

Not only does she originally hail from the state, but Bachmann’s more socially conservative message will certainly resonate with the base, especially when you consider that she doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk (twenty-three foster kids). What’s more, with the addition of Ed Rollins, Bachmann has a seasoned campaign manager, mostly known for President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election victory in 1984. Only an entire cemetery in Minnesota that somehow unanimously voted Democratic on election day kept Rollins away from a grand slam. But crucially, Bachmann has a guy in charge more than familiar with running and winning campaigns in Iowa. Just ask Mike Huckabee

And unlike Pawlenty, Rollins has already demonstrated his willingness to take the gloves off. Sure, there are those who claim that Rollins’ remark that Sarah Palin “has not been serious” was a major mistake and another example why appointing him was a grave error. Of course, to claim that Rollins – and Bachmann – didn’t know what they were doing here demonstrates great naivety. At this early point in the race Bachmann had to define herself as someone other than “Sarah Palin Lite.” As Palin and the media continue to feed off each other as the former governor of Alaska dithers over whether to run, Bachmann is – by definition – “serious.”  She had to make this point nice and early.

Having never stopped running for president, Romney – warts and all – still symbolizes the GOP’s best bet for taking back the White House. Despite what the media attempts to portray, there is a propensity within the Republican Party – as opposed to the Democrats – to choose pragmatism over populism when it comes to selecting a presidential candidate. Romney, with a strong business and executive background, simply represents a safe pair of hands. And yet in the same way Bachmann could help oust Pawlenty from the race, Romney’s main threat comes from Jon Huntsman, Utah’s former government and the former ambassador to China. 

Huntsman’s candidacy – or currently lack thereof – has arguably been the worst kept secret in Washington over the past few weeks. Although he too has an impressive business and executive background (and yes, he too is a Mormon), Huntsman possesses something Romney does not—freshness. People may feel a little oversaturated with Romney. Huntsman on the other hand has been beefing up his resume and may well be the unfamiliar face that the GOP has been waiting for. 

Now that she’s expected to step down from her District, Bachmann has everything to play for. Sure, it’s unlikely that Bachmann will end up with the nomination but she will most certainly influence the outcome of the race, even taking Pawlenty’s scalp in Iowa. Of course, twists may well be on the horizon, especially if Governor Rick Perry of Texas enters the race. But Bachmann has already surpassed expectations, going from being a purely fringe candidate to someone who can truly cause an upset. 

On the night of February 6th, we’ll likely find out how impactful her candidacy on this race will be. 

Ewan Watt is a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consultant.  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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