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Opinion: Debate Report Card - Paul Flops, Bachmann Attacks, Perry as Tebow?

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Republican presidential candidates at Fox News debate in Sioux City, Iowa.

I had the opportunity to again live-blog the GOP debate in Sioux City, Iowa for WNYC and the Des Moines Register, and I must say from the get go that I was disappointed. It was largely an oops-free event, with Mitt Romney and newt Gingrich, the assumed front-runners, not wanting to take any risks

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza called the debate itself the biggest loser of the night:

“This was a debate almost entirely devoid of any major moments. There was no memorable exchange, no big mistake. Most of the candidates were content to stay within their stump speeches, avoiding much direct interaction with their opponents. Maybe they just were tired of debating so much.”

I blogged about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s hair splitting defense of his getting hunks of dough from Fannie May and the medical industry. What IS the difference between “consulting” and “lobbying” Newt?” Of course there IS no difference in the mind of the public and he was in the bulls eye on that issue for quite some time.

Newt’s most troubling moment was when he suggested that judges should be subpoenaed to appear before Congress to explain decisions Congress doesn't like. He got pushback on that, even though in Iowa firing judges from their job for decisions the pubic does not like such as gay marriage is very popular, so he probably scored with the conservative GOP base.

Newt did not explode on air; instead he continued to be the “New Newt” as he’s being called, but good Ron Paul attack ads during the debate break were stark reminders of his baggage. Newt is still ahead of the others in aggregate polls in Iowa. But, remember, “ … half of all Republican voters surveyed said they won’t vote for Gingrich in the general election, and he trailed President Barack Obama by 11 points in a hypothetical contest.” (Washington Post)

Ron Paul was clearly a loser in this debate. He got into an unnecessary argument over U.S. foreign policy towards Iran, nuclear weapons, and reinforced his support for a neo-isolationist foreign policy. Most Americans don’t want major international entanglements, but his “peacenik” position is not going to bring more voters on board in the GOP. The “occupy” contingent doesn't vote in Republican caucuses and primaries, and you need to do well in very pro-military states such as South Carolina and Florida. Appeasement is never a good position to take in public.

Michelle Bachmann slammed him on this, to much effect: “I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul. And I'll tell you the reason why. And the reason — the reason — the reason why I would say that is because we know without a shadow of a doubt that Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map, and they've stated they will use it against the United States of America.”

A straight-to-the-point sentence. Overall Bachmann had another good debate. She was strong and indignant in her blast of Gingrich’s money reaping operations. She seems unfazed and gets good marks for her debating style from coach Schmidt.

Mitt Romney did himself a lot of good nationally. He was focused, defended himself against questions about social issue flip flopping, and he looked presidential again. I guess the $10K bill he threatened to bet with Rick Perry in the last debate had been removed from his pocket by his campaign staff.

The surprise winner was Rick Perry who spoke in complete sentences and did not forget anything.  Is he really the “Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses? (Football superstar quarterback analogies can never hurt.) It makes him more like the guy you had a beer with at the tailgate the last time you went to a game something you CANNOT say about Mitt Romney who probably sits in the Bain corporate sky box if he ever goes to any sports events.

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for