The main takeaway from tonight’s debate in Ames, Iowa is that Tim Pawlenty doesn’t have what it takes to perform on the presidential campaign trail. Michele Bachmann chose for some reason to orient her campaign around slamming him, and he looked intimidated and scared, while drawing no blood against anyone else. On the surface, the winner would seem to me to be Mitt Romney. He “looks presidential” compared to the others. He also clearly has some ability to discuss public policy. He suggested that increased immigration by high-skill workers would be a good idea (it would be!) and had a possibly intriguing idea about transforming the Unemployment Insurance system. He even managed to derive a semi-plausible federalist defense of his Massachusetts health care initiative. He badly outclassed Pawlenty, and the other people on the stage don’t seem serious.
If what was on the stage was the whole thing, then that would be the verdict: Romney wins. But at this point we’re really all waiting for Texas Governor Rick Perry. It just continues to be the case that Romney seems like he can’t win. A Mormon? The apostle of the individual mandate? A former pro-choicer? In this cycle? Really? On paper, Romney should be very beatable by a credible candidate and Perry is a very credible candidate.
But what Pawlenty’s been reminding us these past few months is that you can’t win an election on paper. As Republicans think about who they want to serve as their standard-bearer, obviously they don’t want someone Barack Obama will run circles around. Pawlenty looks like someone who’d get clobbered. Will Perry? You can’t tell unless he actually gets in the arena. If he gets in and he’s gone, then Romney’s got a big problem. If he doesn’t get in, or if he gets in and looks weak, then you have Romney vs Bachmann in a battle of two candidates who seemingly can’t win. And yet someone has to win!