The Fox News Republican Presidential Debate in Sioux City, IA Thursday evening gave me reasons once again to grudgingly admit that these events do serve a useful purpose.

First, the panel assembled by Fox News: Baier, Kelly, Wallace, and Cavuto were superb. They asked the questions that people really wanted to hear the candidates answer, several of which had to provide some uncomfortable moments for the candidates. To be sure, I got annoyed seeing the panel set up fights between the candidates, such as when Chris Wallace questioned Mitt Romney on abortion, gay rights, and gun rights, and then baited Rick Santorum to hammer Romney on his answers. But we got to hear substantial answers to tough questions. I frankly thought some of the questions that were asked at the ABC News Debate last week were just plain silly. This was a refreshing change.

Second, some of what I saw and heard that night made me rethink some notions I had about some of the candidates. More about that later.

Third, it was the final debate prior to Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses, and, to the extent that it may have been the best of the debates so far, it was as informative as it was timely.

There was a lot of ground covered in those two hours. And there were a lot of fireworks along the way. Most of the fireworks were lit by Michelle Bachmann, who had to be a surprise to many as she relentlessly attacked her opponents and never seemed to stumble. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul both were thoroughly punched by her, and when they attempted to fight back, Bachmann held her own.

Then there was Rick Perry, who, for the most part, delivered a very solid performance. Previously I was unconvinced that the words “Rick Perry” and “solid performance” could ever be used in the same sentence when describing a debate. His only poor moment came at a time when he was addressing this very issue, in a sense: He attempted to demonstrate that he was ready for “prime time” by suggesting that he wanted to be the “Tim Tebow of the Iowa Caucuses”. Maybe this resonated with some folks. I thought it was awful. But he was great on some other occasions, however. I thought he was especially good when he responded without hesitation to Neil Cavuto’s question about how to make congress any more part time than it already is: “140 days every other year like we do in Texas”. Great answer.

Jon Huntsman usually does a good job in articulating his positions, and some of his positions are good ones. But he isn’t generating any excitement here in Iowa, and making comments like he wasn’t going to sign any “stupid pledges” will not endear him further to Christian conservatives here.

Rick Santorum had a few great moments, one of which came when he spoke on taxes and asserted his commitment to repeal all of Barack Obama’s regulations, and another when he described the world view of militant Islam extremely well: “They don’t hate us for what we do, or our policies. They hate us for who we are.” Santorum is one of the few national figures who’ve had the guts to tell it like it is on this particular matter. It’s a shame that he’s not getting more camera time in these debates.

Ron Paul was rock solid when he spoke passionately about the Constitution and economic issues. And early on he delivered a great one liner: When asked about his electability, he said anyone on the stage could beat Barack Obama. But as usual, when Paul spoke on foreign policy, his mainstream Republican admirers were disgusted.

Newt Gingrich found himself tap dancing most of the night, as the other candidates (usually Bachmann) shot at his feet like cowboys shooting at a hapless chuckwagon cook in an old western movie. It’s to be expected for a front runner to dodge bullets, and Gingrich did a reasonable job. But he’s gotten terse in his responses of late, and looks irritated while in the heat of battle. The likable old history professor has disappeared.

Mitt Romney had one of his best events to date. Even when attacked hard, he remained unflappable. A number of his points were spot on and well articulated. And I thought that his explanations regarding his positions (or changes on his positions) on social issues were plausible.

As I mentioned earlier, I did leave Sioux City having changed my thinking about some of the candidates. I thought Bachmann’s performance was nearly flawless. She’s tough–a lot tougher than I previously gave her credit for. I also saw Rick Perry in a different light. I got past some of the stumbling around I’d seen on previous occasions and saw a guy with some real substance. Perhaps the most surprising to me is that for the first time I saw something in Romney that I actually thought was solid, genuine, and perhaps even a little admirable. I’d heretofore seen him as a guy with no political soul. I’m still skeptical, but maybe I haven’t been entirely fair to this guy.

I’m grinding my teeth as I say it, but these events do serve a useful purpose.


In the next day or two, I’ll post some interesting stuff from the post-debate spin room with Rick Santorum.


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