Republican presidential candidates often struck a professorial tone, forgoing several chances to attack their opponents during Wednesday night's GOP debate in Michigan's Oakland University.
The candidates instead treated the event as a chance to prove their fiscal aptitude, with mixed results.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney emerged the winner -- not by any merit of his own, but by exhibiting the fewest flaws in an otherwise very deficient field.
Romney was notable for what he didn't do: bicker with moderators; repeatedly dodge questions; forget his own platform; or offer the same solution to over a dozen problems -- all sins which his opponents committed.
Instead, Romney spent most of the debate sitting back, repeating portions of his stump speech when called upon, peppering in sound bites, applause lines and witty quips. With the top-grade self destruction on hand around him, not much effort was required on his part.
Perry: An Historic, Embarassing Performance
Take for example, the curious case of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who rambled through another shoddy performance. He has admitted debates are not his strength. Quite an understatement. In the latter portion of the debate, Perry wilted into the school kid who got caught unprepared for class. While listing what three federal agencies he'd eliminate, Perry made it up to two, then just forgot the third.
Commerce, education, and... Perry said, nervously shuffling about the top of his podium, before letting out a sigh and giving up. The third one I can't. I'm sorry.
Perry did manage, when he remembered, to stay on his minimal-regulation message, while squeezing in his flat tax plan whenever possible.
Gingrich Mixes It Up With...CNBC's Maria Bartiromo
The congeniality among the candidates wore thin on CNBC's moderators, who were overtly itching for a fight. What they got, instead, was Newt Gingrich vs. CNBC host Maria Bartiromo.
The former House Speaker's bizarre animosity towards debate moderators, and the format in general, eventually drew long stretches of petulance from Gingrich. On several occasions, the grand professor of the Grand Old Party took the time to lambaste time limits, poke a thumb into the media's eye, and just be a general smart-aleck towards Bartiromo. The results were often hilarious but rarely helpful to Gingrich's cause.
During one exchange, Bartiromo asked What would you replace Obamacare with? and gave each candidate 30 seconds to respond. A visibly annoyed Gingrich miffed the question, instead launching into a tirade about how well he knows the subject then promising to challenge President Barack Obama to seven Lincoln Douglas-style debates.
Do you want to answer the question tonight Mr. Speaker? Bartiromo shot back.
The moderators went fishing for intra-party fighting again, when Bartiromo asked Cain if character should factor into the American people's decision, alluding to surfacing allegations of Cain's alleged sexual harassment of four women. The question drew boos from the audience.
The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations, he said. I value my character more than anyone.
Romney was offered a chance to respond, and promptly demurred.
Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions; he just did, he said.
Cain: Little Substance, Beyond 9-9-9
And what of Cain? The sexual harassment allegations arose then died quickly, and what returned was the gimmicky 9-9-9 plan, which he repeated as a cure to everything from the housing market to giving confidence to individual investors. The façade of Cain's candidacy began to crumble, well before the debate, but also as his repeated insistence that the 9-9-9 cure-all would help solve trade deficit issues with China. His assertion caused Gingrich and Romney, both to Cain's left, to turn away and laugh.
On substantive issues, all the candidates were uniformly against any bit of legislation or regulation authored by President Barack Obama. Healthcare reform? The auto bailouts? The stimulus? All big mistakes, to be replaced with a mix of state-centric solutions, decreased regulations and flatter, fairer taxes. As much as the candidates would like voters to believe their platforms are miles apart, they aren't.
With the exception of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the libertarian with an inexplicably rabid collegiate fan base, who along with Gingrich suffered the problem of having too much to say and almost no time to say it. The resulting paragraphs of information with occasional zingers left their message muddled at best. (Gingrich also displayed what is becoming a tick: beginning every answer with a history lesson).
With such a script-free circus unfolding around him, Romney needed to simply offer platitudes such as, I will be true to my family, to my faith and to my country. I will never apologize for my country.
Perhaps the only flaw for Romney, aside from the hair gelled coiffe that gave way to spikes throughout the night, was the lack of truly difficult challenges from opponents. Should Romney get the GOP nod, he may notice his debate muscles have atrophied as a result of lackluster competition.