The GOP Debate Circuit comes to CNBC

I have been excited about this particular GOP debate for some time, knowing that it was the only one CNBC was going to host and knowing that MSNBC and CNN were not hosting it. The various moderators and panelists are also people I spend every day of my life with, as CNBC serves as the programming backdrop for nearly every single office in the country that works in the investment industry. So even though I have never met some of them (I have met several of them on a few occassions), I feel like I know them. I don’t get the same feeling with the folks on MSNBC where I primarily feel like I want to exterminate them. Also of particular interest to me was the fact that CNBC promised to focus this debate exclusively on jobs and the economy.

I will lead with my conclusion: The winner tonight was a tie between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich; Herman Cain had a strong night in a night that many were very curious how he would hold up; and Rick Perry is completely and totally done. I think Santorum, Bachman, Paul, and Huntsman need to leave as soon as possible.

It is just not fair for that group to crowd the stage any longer. Now, there is no point in continuing that thread as it pertains to Ron Paul because he is not going to do it, so I will get to him later. Santorum will likely stay in until Iowa and will certainly back out after that. I suppose the same is true of Bachman. Huntsman says he will stay in until New Hampshire, but we shall see. Bachman did a fine job tonight, and she is significantly more impressive when she is going after Obama than she is when she tries to attack another GOP candidate or talk about modern medicine. It is interesting in a day and age that the consultants are so sure of the merits of attack politics that her irrational and almost asinine attacks on Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry directly coincided with her utter collapse in the polls. She plays the role better as an Obama attack dog. Santorum should have been called out much more for his offensive tax proposal to cut the corporate rate ONLY on the “manufacturing” sector to 0% (especially when the stage is filled with folks, he being one of them, bemoaning the idea that the government should pick “winners and losers”). When I hear Santorum talk I often wonder if he really believes a lot of the stuff he says about himself. I have met him several times and have enjoyed some wonderful private conversations with him in recent years, and I have to say that he comes off much humbler in real life than he does in these debates where he may as well join Gore in taking credit for inventing the internet. Regardless, I can not imagine that anyone is offended in my suggestion that he, Bachman, and Creepsman exit the stage as soon as possible. Speaking of Creepsman, he gave an outstanding rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s absurd China answer tonight, and he deserves credit for appearing to be the only one in the race capable of speaking the truth about China (it actually may be worse; Romney may be capable of speaking the truth about China, but might actually believe the nonsense he is saying). Okay – I have given Huntsman props for something, and now I must resume to worrying that he is staring in my window right now.

Ron Paul loves this so much that we all know he will not drop out until the very last second. I used to think he merely loved the attention, but I also believe he loves the fundraising. Regardless, this was certainly the best appearance I have seen from Paul in one of these debates. I suppose the main reason for that is that Ron Paul becomes a significantly more impressive person when he is NOT talking about anything remotely related to foreign policy. I wish foreign policy would be off limits more often, because it really kept Ron on the reservation, and I am not sure that he even had a temptation tonight (let alone an utterance) about the moral superiority of Iran to America (or other such comedy). He does have a tendency to slip into very generic platitudes, but who doesn’t? He is wrong if he believes that the policymakers’ motivation in propping up the mortgage-backed securities is “bailing out the banks”, but I don’t know if he really believes that or not. The agency securities he refers to are all about China, and it actually would not surprise me if he truly did not understand that. But his answers tonight about the European saga and the student loan situation were choice, and so I give him props, even though he is a nut.

Okay, so now for the serious candidates. Rick Perry is done, and I am sorry to say that. This thing was HIS, not Mitt Romney’s, to lose just two months ago. But his debate performances have been SO bad that his REAL conservative credentials, REAL track record of creating jobs, and REAL ideology are not enough to help him any more. Tonight’s gaffe was, of course, just a gaffe, but he will not recover from it. It is a shame that the presentation skils of Mitt Romney and ideology of Rick Perry could not be combined into one candidate, because that candidate would be unbeatable. However, Perry knew he was a bad debater before entering the race, and his well-paid team had a responsibility to better prepare him. They failed to do so, and when the guy with the single greatest energy plan in the entire race completely forgets that he is planning to eliminate the Department of Energy, it is game over. I do not know how he will navigate his path from here (he has raised too much money to drop out now, but a fifth place finish in Iowa will be utterly humiliating to his legacy). I remain totally at peace with Perry on the issues – social security, tuition policy, general approach to illegals, etc. – all the issues he supposedly is so at odds with conservatives on. I have no problem with any of the above, and actually believe that HE has the honest and correct approach to social security, not Mitt Romney. Comparisons to Fred Thompson are unfair and dishonest. Fred did not run. Fred did not try. Fred was not serious. Fred was told all he would have to do is show up, and he actually believed the idiots who told him that! Rick has campaigned and fundraised with reckless abandon; he just can not speak in public or think off the top of his head, and I have heard that the leader of the free world has to do both of those things from time to time.

I love Newt in these debates, and I hope he stays around as long as possible. He is a brilliant ideas guy, and I will probably vote for him in my own state’s worthless primary if he is still around. I would love to see Newt debate Obama, and by love, I mean I would pay unseemly amounts of money to make it happen. But I am not able to jump on the bandwagon with some of my conservative friends who see Newt making the comeback of the century. I don’t personally see how he can overcome the complete lack of fundraising, and it also bears mentioning that he has come back from obscurity to become a player in this race again without ANY scrutiny at all. That would not last. The three marriages and two affairs ARE a big deal, and even if they shouldn’t be because he is super duper sorry and will never ever do it again, it is a political liability and I am almost sure that I am correct on this. He could probably get through the big spending sprees at Tiffany’s and all that (who really cares, seriously?), but I just think ultimately his sole strength (as a candidate) is in his debate skills. In one-on-one situations he has a tendency to say things like Paul Ryan’s medicare bill is “right wing social engineering”, and I don’t want to see that Newt again. I like the Newt who literally tears every media moderator into little pieces. I like the Newt who goes head to head with Maria Bartiroma, and knocks HER down. I like the Newt who reminds all of the other candidates how juvenille they sound when they start attacking each other for hiring gardeners and giving cancer to teenage girls. Newt is good stuff in these debates, but if his low bank account and heavy history of divorces do not keep him from advancing in this nomination battle, it will be the biggest error I have made in my political prognostication career (unless you count the time four years ago that I predicted Rudy Guiliani would win the nomination) …

Herman Cain did well tonight. I can not see how he will survive this mess with the harassment allegations, but I am very comfortable with his innocence. I don’t care about that subject, and I don’t care that his former employer got shaken down by a frivolous suit (as an aside, for those reading into the fact that she received 35k to leave the company, you may want to do a little homework; a settlement or “agreement” for 35k in a sexual harassment case these days is proof of innocence, not guilt; the guilty cases see settlements of 750k, or 1.5mm, or whatever; yep, that is the world we live in). Herman did “well”, but not “great”. The incessant repetition about “9-9-9” is no longer effective; it is what we in the communications business call “annoying as can be” (and no, I am not really in the communications business). His signature idea (9-9-9) is never going to be law, and Herman still strikes me as an inspiring guy and inspiring story who lacks the depth to obtain this job. Perhaps I am wrong. But he does not have a serious infrastructure in place, and I suspect he will begin dropping in Iowa polls. He is uncanny in his ability to deliver clever lines though (the “Princess Nancy” one was good tonight, as was the “tax codes don’t raise taxes, politicians do”, but none were as good as “the problem with Dodd-Frank is Dodd and Frank”). I have to say that I think he would get drubbed in the general election, but I will refer you to the last sentence of my prior paragraph.

So who does that leave? The inevitable default candidate of the GOP party? Perhaps. I don’t know for sure. I suspect it is happening, but that aforementioned prior sentence disallows me from exhibiting confidence in these forecasts. I think Mitt does an outstanding job in these debates, and tonight he had a few strong answers. His resolve in defending the need for a market solution to housing was oustanding. China was his weak point. His tax proposal is silly, but I suppose he could say that he doesn’t see anything else being passable without 60 GOP senators (and he may be right). Mitt lacks any serious political philosophy, and if he becomes the nominee, I think he has the task of a lifetime ahead of him (to convince voters to vote for him based on something strong about him, and not merely their disappointment in Barack Obama). I tend to agree with Erick Ericson of that he will win the nomination but will lose to Obama, but I hope I am wrong. He can repair some bridges with conservatives, and I liked a few things he said tonight. I will not address his sincerity challenges tonight, but I do have a piece coming on what I think Mitt needs to do. In the meantime, I think he won tonight, and he seems to get stronger in each debate.

I wonder if 2012 can be the first Presidential election perhaps ever where voters were so exclusively focused on replacing the unpopular incumbent that they did not care about the candidate they were voting for. I am skeptical. So as the primary process drags on, may Rick Perry remember all three of his major points, may Romney avoid criticizing conservatives for disliking the social security system, and may Newt keep smacking around bitchy reporters. And through it all, may we find a candidate who can beat Barack Obama and his billion-dollar campaign fund. For now, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.