GOP candidates need to be less like Reagan, more like Trump

Dorian Davis Adjunct Journalism Professor, Marymount Manhattan College
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Well, that was boring.

With Mitt Romney the nominal frontrunner — recent CNN and Gallup polls show him at 24 percent — and most of his second-tier competitors stuck in the single digits without Romney’s name recognition or Donald Trump’s showbiz instincts, the biggest surprise at last night’s GOP presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire was that Ron Paul made it through the whole two hours without a bathroom break. Some seemed to be there to bolster their brand names or compete for the VP spot more than to attack their opponents. But their caution could come back to haunt them.

This thing was a total snooze-fest from top to bottom, in part because of the restrictive format (30 seconds per question!) but in part because of the menagerie of low-rent, pre-programmed people involved. CNN’s “What to watch for” column more or less predicted the whole thing beforehand: Michele Bachmann’s rollout? Yep. Newt Gingrich’s comeback? Yep. It would be one thing if serious names with big personalities like Sarah Palin or Chris Christie had been involved. But last night’s debate offered fewer good options than a Denny’s menu. Gingrich came out of the box strong, at one point suggesting that half the Department of Homeland Security should be reallocated to border control, but his campaign has been over since it started and the mass exodus of his top aides last Thursday is just another nail in the coffin. The rest were such long-shot candidates that CNN moderator John King had to stop using the word “irrelevant” in his questions because everybody but Romney kept answering.

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain had the potential to be the Donald Trump of the bunch — more of a trouble-making movement candidate than a real contender. Two weeks ago, he was at least beating Gingrich 2 to 1 in their home state of Georgia. But last night he came off as a wallflower with no experience in foreign policy, which is more or less a deal-breaker for the presidency now. His best answer of the night was that he liked deep-dish pizza. And after repeating more than once the faux pas that he wouldn’t be “comfortable” with a Muslim in his cabinet, Cain now has about as much chance of winning the GOP nod as Obama does.

GOP insiders seem to like Tim Pawlenty. But Pawlenty is just, frankly, boring. Bill O’Reilly once called him the “invisible” candidate. And his presidential campaign has been so unremarkable up to now that his own mother heard of him for the first time last night. I’m not even sure that he made a good impression on her. His pandering to social cons (the Mr. Rogers-esque “I’m a neighbor” introduction, for instance) was stupid but his real low point was refusing to take on Romney when King asked him about his likening Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare reform plan to President Obama’s on Fox News Sunday. That let Romney skate by unscathed on an issue that had the potential to hurt him, at least in the GOP primary.

Then there’s Bachmann. For the hour that I watched CNN’s post-debate coverage last night, one commentator after another declared Bachmann the winner. But she flubbed some major questions — at least for millennial voters. One month after Gallup found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, Bachmann at least tried to temper her answer, telling King at first that she’d leave marriage to the states. But once Paul, Gingrich, Romney and Santorum all backed a constitutional amendment to ban it, she jumped on the bandwagon too. Overall, she came away looking competent. But Bachmann is such a long shot that all she had to bring to impress people last night were low expectations and a nametag.

When nothing happens, the frontrunner wins. And a poll conducted just after the debate — in which 51 percent of Republicans picked Romney as the winner — confirmed that to CNN. The rest of the GOP field came off looking like it couldn’t win The Amazing Race, much less the presidential one. If the other candidates want to compete with Romney — never mind Obama — they better be less Ronald Reagan (‘Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican’) and more Trump.

Dorian Davis is a former MTV HITS star turned Libertarian writer. He’s been published in Business Week, NY Daily News, XY & more. He’s an NYU graduate and National Journalism Center alum. He teaches journalism at Marymount Manhattan College.