The Root: Battle For Conservative Street Cred

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

It was a given that the seven presidential candidates in Monday night's Republican debate would bandy about plenty of "Obama is doing it wrong" arguments. Whether the issue was stabilizing the economy, the auto-industry bailout, health care reform, being tough enough on terrorists or deporting enough undocumented immigrants, everyone thoroughly condemned the president for his performance over the past two-and-a-half years.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (who, minutes into the proceedings, announced that she had filed her paperwork to officially enter the race) garnered one of the night's biggest rounds of applause from the New Hampshire audience by theatrically proclaiming that Obama is a "one-term president."

Yet throughout the two-hour debate, when the candidates were pushed to explain what specific solutions they would offer if elected president, things got a bit muddled:

*Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty promised to grow the economy at a rate of 5 percent every year, through a vague "pro-growth" agenda of cutting still more taxes for the wealthy and corporations.

*Bachmann said that she would eliminate the "job-killing" Environmental Protection Agency in one particularly head-scratching moment.

*Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed that his previous comment about Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare being "radical right-wing engineering" was taken out of context, and said that what he meant is merely that we ought to try something different to get a handle on the program.

*Former pizza-company CEO Herman Cain, showing not-so-strong foreign policy credentials, said, "To paraphrase my grandmother on Libya, it's a mess."

*Everyone vowed that they would repeal the Affordable Care Act, but no one offered an alternative to it.

Despite speculation that Romney might be vulnerable — wide open to attacks over the Obama-like health plan that he passed in Massachusetts — the frontrunner emerged without a scratch in what turned out to be a tepid debate. No one would criticize him on anything

In one of the more memorable sections, CNN moderator John King gave Pawlenty a chance to reiterate his criticism of Romney's plan, which he'd called "ObamaneyCare" on King's Sunday show, but Pawlenty cowered away from being confrontational in person. "I just cited President Obama's own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed ObamaCare," Pawlenty awkwardly explained, pretty much blowing his moment.

During an extended segment on social issues, most of the candidates flexed their conservative street cred by inevitably expressing their opposition to gay marriage, the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" and abortion rights. For me, things again took a turn for the weird when Cain defended his discomfort with the idea of appointing Muslims in his administration if elected president, explaining that he specifically meant "the ones that are trying to kill us" and that he would not put up with Shariah law in American courts (said to hearty applause from the audience).

After Romney followed up by saying that he welcomes people of all faiths and brushed off Cain's odd fear about Shariah law, Gingrich co-signed onto Cain's uneasiness, saying that he would be in favor of loyalty oaths in his administration. "We did this in dealing with the Nazis, and we did this in dealing with the communists," Gingrich continued, saying that we must have the guts to do it again with the "bad" Muslims who might try to infiltrate the country.

Throughout the debate, to lighten up the mood and learn more about their personalities, King also played several rounds of "this or that," in which candidates had to pick from two not-at-all-related to-politics choices. In case you're wondering ... Pawlenty prefers Leno to Conan, Cain fancies deep dish over thin crust and Gingrich would rather watch American Idol than Dancing With the Stars.

So, who won? Since Romney came in as a frontrunner, stayed focused on his strategy of attacking Obama, refused to play to the farther-right base and avoided any potential attacks from his opponents, it was a good showing for him.

Bachmann also came across surprisingly well, faltering a few times, but dropping plenty of sharp and quotable lines that kept the audience hanging on her every word. Although, in the first Republican debate, Fox viewers handed the victory to Cain, he seemed in over his head this time.

What did you think of the candidates?

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