When I first started covering politics, “electability” wasn’t really a salient political issue. It was something the pols and the money people worried about.
Voters were more interested in where the candidates stood on issues than they were about some perceived (or self-described) ability to win general elections.
Today, Republican primary voters are searching for the most conservative candidate who can defeat President Barack Obama in the general election. “Electability” isn’t just salient, it’s highly salient to them. They will not tolerate anyone who can’t win next November.
In that regard, last night’s debate probably marks the peak of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign. She may still go on to win the Iowa caucuses, but she lost on “electability” last night. She needed to raise her game in this debate and she did not. She hit her talking points, but she didn’t show depth. You could almost hear conservative voters saying to themselves: “if Tim Pawlenty can tie her up in knots, imagine what Obama will do.”
Newt Gingrich won the debate tonight. He showed the greatest command of issues and was smarter (and savvier) about the breadth of America’s challenges. But everyone knows he can’t win; he carries too much political baggage and he’s ill-suited (temperamentally) to the job.
So Romney was tonight’s political winner. He did well enough in the debate itself and no one really challenged his front-runner status. He show-cased his argument against President Obama and it was good enough. You could see him holding his own in a presidential debate with the president 14 months from now.
So Romney it was and is, at least for last night and today. Next week, it’s Romney vs. Perry (who will formally announce his candidacy in South Carolina on Saturday). That’s the next major debate of the political pre-season. And probably the one that determines who is the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.