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The GOP Debate and Iowa Straw Poll: Fox News and Michele Bachmann Were the Winners in Ames Iowa

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The GOP Presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, was certainly one of the feistiest in recent memory.  There were several verbal sparring matches and the Fox News moderators grilled all the candidates with tough questions.  It made for a fascinating two hours and set the stage for a climactic Ames Straw Poll on Saturday.

GOP debate

So did the debate have any impact on Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll?

Let’s compare the debate performance with the Straw Poll results.

Fox News: Debate Grade= A
Though I’m sure Newt Gingrich will disagree, the big winner was Fox News, which presented a first-class, rousing and illuminating debate among GOP candidates Thursday night.

Because the channel has a reputation for being the mouthpiece for the GOP, I’m sure many media pundits were expecting the candidates to get coddled and thrown softballs.

Not the case.

Fox News debate moderators Bret Baier and Chris Wallace "subjected the GOP contenders to tougher, rougher, questions" than CNN and MSNBC ever have. "In fact, I don’t think Obama ever received this kind of grilling as a candidate or as president." Baier and Wallace "were superb in their preparation and questions," says David Zurawik at the Baltimore Sun. Baier and Wallace have raised the bar for commentators to emulate.

Michele Bachmann: Debate Grade=B+ / 1st Place in Straw Poll  (28.55%)
Wallace instigated her entertaining scuffle with Tim Pawlenty. Though Michele Bachmann got the better of the exchange, it was too personal, and as the Iowa frontrunner, getting in a mudslinging contest is something you want avoid.  Still, the Tea Party-backed congresswoman faced her first major test as the Iowa frontrunner in this debate. She emerged with some battle-scars, but will hold on to her reputation of being one of Romney main challengers for the nomination.

Bachman’s solid performance certainly correlated with her first place finish on Saturday. For months, I have said that Bachmann will be a formidable opponent. Now her first place finish cements her top-tier status in the GOP race, though her narrow victory over Paul is a little surprising.

Mitt Romney: Debate Grade B/ 7th Place in Straw Poll (3.36%)
Already leading in polls among national Republican voters and looking “presidential”, Romney sounded like a candidate ready to take on President Obama. While other candidates bickered with each others' policy stances and records, Romney largely stayed above the fray. He successfully avoided damaging answers to questions about Romeycare and his absence from the debt ceiling debate. He stuck to narrow talking points, stayed on message, even fitting his seven-point plan to economic recovery into a one-minute speaking limit. Impressive.

Because nobody landed a good punch on him or even came close of knocking him off his perch, Romney had a good performance.

His sold performance; however, did not translate into votes in the straw poll. That’s okay—Romney did not expect to do well against the more socially conservative members of the GOP race here in Iowa.  Yet it is a little disappointing that he lost to Governor Rick Perry (6th place- 3.62%) who just announced his candidacy on Saturday and did not participate in the debate.

Newt Gingrich: Debate Grade B/ 8th Place in Straw Poll (2.28%)

This was by far, Newt Gingrich’s best debate performance, though he seemed like a cranky old college professor at times. Beginning by hammering Chris Wallace for the “gotcha” questions, he really seemed to finally come out of his disinterested ambivalent shell.  He successfully tapped into that “media is the enemy” sentiment that the GOP faithful love to exploit. It went over well.

On the issues, he was assertive; he was sharp; and he was articulate. He had a real good grasp on history --How many times did he mention the GOP icon, Ronald Reagan? He scored a lot of points where he ridiculed the idea of a Congress “Super Committee” that will direct the debt ceiling budget cuts. When asked about it, Gingrich responded, "It's like saying we're going to shoot you in the head or cut off your leg, which do you prefer?"

Gingrich’s weak showing in the straw poll, however, shows that it’s a little too late for Newt.  His campaign needed one heck of a bump from the straw poll. I don’t see a horde of donors flocking to Newt’s cause after a dismal 8th place finish.

Ron Paul: Debate Grade=B- / 2nd Place in Straw Poll  (27.65%)
Ron Paul was the crowd favorite, consistently getting the loudest round of applause.  When speaking about economic issues like the Fed and the business cycle, I think he is the most knowledgeable person on stage.  It’s clear that his core concerns — the devaluation of currency, the monetization of debt, derision of the federal reserve, unnecessary militarism — have moved from a fringy outpost into the mainstream of Republican thought. Other GOP candidates echo them, too.

But at times, he seemed like a family’s crazy old uncle. He was harmed by some of his national security ideas, like giving terrorists full constitutional rights and suggesting the threat of Iran is overblown. To most conservatives, these ideas makes Paul seem like a flake, a man still on the fringe. These positions allowed Santorum, who attacked Paul on his national security ideas, to score some points much needed points.

His performance correlated with the straw poll results. Rep. Ron Paul placed second in today’s Ames straw poll, greatly improving on his results four years ago. His campaign is energized by the results and should be a major factor in the GOP nomination.

Herman Cain: Debate Grade=C/ 5th Place in Straw Poll  (8.62%)
Cain continued to entertain but was still a bit rough around the edges. Right now, he is a one trick pony—If he is talking about the economy, he’s great. If not, he’s not so great.

The former Godfather Pizza CEO was at his best talking about business growth, but continued to stumble a bit over touchy religious subjects and foreign policy. He's hanging right in the middle of the large Republican field, as his 5th place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll shows.

Rick Santorum: Debate Grade= C- / 4th Place in Straw Poll  (9.81%)
Look at me! Look at me! Will someone please ask me a question? Rick Santorum resorted to begging for attention during the debate, as the debate moderators largely avoided talking to the long shot candidate for the first hour.

Santorum was eventually able to get in a few points here and there on social and national security issues at Ron Paul’s expense. Overall, however, he did nothing over the course of the debate to really launch himself into the national discussion

But he must be ecstatic with his 4th place finish. He earned it- he pressed the flesh probably harder than any other candidate, but I predict that he will continue to linger at the bottom of the field.

Tim Pawlenty: Debate Grade= D/ 3rd Place in Straw Poll  (13.57%)
On Thursday night, Pawlenty reminded me of Al Gore in 2000, who was criticized for being too passive during his second debate with George W. Bush, then followed up by being too aggressive in the third and final debate with the future president.

This spring, Pawlenty was condemned for not attacking Romeycare in the first GOP debate when he was given the opportunity. Like Gore, Pawlenty became way too aggressive in the next showing. Pawlenty took big swings at every fastball that came his way, (especially in his exchanges with Bachmann), but was unable to hit a home run.

Bachmann had his breakfast, lunch and dinner in one sitting. Oh, and then she topped it off with a little "you sound like Barack Obama" for dessert. Ouch.

The only reason why I didn’t give T-Paw an “F” is because he had the best line of the night-cooking dinner (or mowing a lawn) for the person who found the Obama’s entitlement plans, unless it was Romney, whose property is too large:

But alas, jokes alone were not enough to save Pawlenty, who withdrew from the GOP race on Sunday. He finished a disappointing distant third place, because he had expended considerable energy and resources in Iowa.

Jon Huntsman: Debate Grade= F/ 9th Place in Straw Poll  (.41%)

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman needed a strong performance to revive his struggling campaign. But he just didn't have the spark he needed. He was practically invisible all night. For somebody that was a former ambassador to China, I thought he would have more to say during the foreign policy portion of the debate. But he allowed Santorum to score some points here.

The moderate does deserve some credit for showing a streak of independent thought for supporting gay civil unions — but that's a politically suicidal move in socially conservative Iowa as his results demonstrate.

Photo Credit: reddogreport.com

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Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@philly2philly.com

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