from The Water's Edge

Quick Takes: So Who Won the GOP Presidential Debate?

May 9, 2011

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Herman Cain speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s
Herman Cain speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation's "Presidential Summit on Spending and Job Creation" in Manchester, New Hampshire on April 29, 2011. (Brian Snyder/courtesy Reuters)

In last week’s Friday File, I used a quote from the New York Times that had Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, saying before Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate: “As we all know, there are numerous other candidates that are looking at [running]—and thank God.” Priebus’s spokesman argues that the full transcript of the exchange with reporters shows that the chairman wasn’t trying to run down the five men who took the stage in Greenville. He was instead trying to say that a robust GOP debate is good for the country. The full quote:

But as we all know, there are numerous other candidates that are looking at it and thank God because we have a country that needs to get straightened out and an economy that we need to get back on track.

Does this mean that the Times was trying to make Priebus look bad? No. At least one other reporter heard the comment the same way. If you read the quote carefully, its meaning turns on where you put commas, dashes, and periods. If Priebus paused in the wrong place when he spoke, then reporters could easily have gotten the wrong idea about what he was saying. Chalk this error up to the perils of communication. We’ve all been a victim of it, though not usually on the pages of the nation’s most widely cited newspaper.

But on to the big question of the day—Who won the GOP presidential debate? Much to the dismay of the many Paulistas who post on TWE, Ron Paul wasn’t the winner among the five candidates who took the stage. That honor goes to pizza magnate Herman Cain. He has gotten the biggest bump in popularity and recognition. A focus group run by Frank Luntz gave Cain rave reviews, prompting the pollster to say that “something very special happened this evening.” A lot of others took notice of Cain’s performance. The Wall Street Journal devoted scarce column inches to Cain in today’s paper, and the Examiner let Washington, D.C, metro riders know that “Herman Cain wows voters.” The question now is whether Cain prospers from his new-found attention or withers. To avoid the latter fate, he needs to come up with a policy on Afghanistan. When he was asked what it was at the debate, he said:

At this point, I don’t know all the facts.

That answer won’t satisfy voters for long.

Despite the flurry of coverage surrounding Cain, Thursday night’s biggest winners weren’t on the stage at all. Who were they? Well, President Obama to begin with. The hopefuls’ carping about his purported shortcomings probably didn’t dull the luster of a man fresh off a victory over the world’s most wanted terrorist.

The other big winners were all the GOP contenders who sat out the debate. One risk to missing early debates is that a rival who shows up might catch lightning in a bottle. Tim Pawlenty, the only one of the so-called top-tier GOP candidates to appear in Greenville, had that chance. But he failed to create the kind of the buzz that Cain did. That’s not a fatal blow for T-Paw, but it is a problem. Now he has to explain to potential volunteers and donors why he didn’t dominate a debate in which he had the chance to be the star.

A final piece of election-related news. The word on the street is that Newt Gingrich will use Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday to announce that he is entering the Republican presidential race. I’ll have more to say once the former Speaker is officially a candidate. (Remember, he has pledged to enter before and then failed to follow through). But odds are that he will not be giving the acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay in August next year.

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