- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The afterglow following Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary debate didn’t last long. The general reaction was that all the sniping back and forth made the whole event look like an unstructured free-for-all, which doesn’t help the opposition party’s argument that it is a sober, responsible alternative to the indiscipline and inexperience of the Obama era. This was partly the fault of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who did a poor job keeping the discussion on track. However, it also was the result of a Grand Old Party that is getting increasingly frustrated over its inability to settle on a standard bearer.

The unavoidable takeaway from the debate is that the GOP’s field of candidates looks worse today than during the very first debate on May 5. Conservatives and independents desperate for change in the White House already were worrying that none of the current crop of challengers were capable of beating President Obama next year. Tuesday’s fracas in Las Vegas didn’t help as the competitors dropped their gloves and leveled sucker punches at each other, notably at the erstwhile leaders in the polls. Blood was drawn from Mitt Romney, Herman Cain showed a few unprotected weak spots, and Rick Perry was left limping badly after the melee. Washington insiders - even those who support him - are disappointed with all the Texas governor’s debate performances so far and are starting to whisper that he doesn’t look strong enough for a bruising, prime-time national campaign.

The longer the pre-primary season drags on without any frontrunner rising above the rest of the pack, the greater the opportunity becomes for a candidate in the middle of the rankings to surge late, create a brief, timely wave of excitement and run away with the nomination. The familiar face getting the most attention behind the scenes now is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. There’s a consensus that he has come off as both the smartest and most solid over the course of all the debates thus far. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin - one of the most popular conservative political celebrities not in the race - raised eyebrows by announcing her opinion that Mr. Gingrich won Tuesday night’s standoff.

“I think we [Republicans] are more interested in substance and that’s why - like tonight - Newt Gingrich again, I think, did the best because he seems to be above a lot of the bickering that goes on,” Mrs. Palin said on Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox News. “Newt Gingrich would - he would clobber Barack Obama in any debate, any forum that had to do with substance when it comes to policy and solutions for the challenges that America faces.”

The strength and unexpected surprise of this endorsement sparked immediate speculation about whether a Gingrich-Palin ticket could win in 2012. Ideological skepticism among the conservative base would be removed by this dream ticket uniting the Tea Party darling with the leader of 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, one of the best executed national campaigns in U.S. history. Two questions surround this theoretical team: Can they surmount their controversial reputations, and could Newt recreate the magic of 1994 to again appeal to a majority of Americans? Republicans are desperate to find a winner who can lead the party to victory next year.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, 2011).

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