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The Policy Racket

Jon Huntsman fails to press Mitt Romney in GOP debate

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican presidential candidates former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, from left, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pose for a photo before the start of the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011.

GOP debate

Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman speaks during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at Cy Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Jon Huntsman may have been the only candidate not to get into multiple rounds of verbal fisticuffs in Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate. But his decorum may have cost him his chance to challenge Mitt Romney’s lock on the Nevada vote.

“He’s a nice guy, but he’s out of his league,” former Nevada governor and GOP strategist Bob List said after watching the debate on Fox News.

Huntsman’s western credentials (he’s a former governor of Utah) and his Mormon faith led many to assume he’d be the natural challenger to Romney and his stronghold in the Nevada caucuses.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, won Nevada with 51 percent of the caucus vote in 2008, a victory in which Mormons, who made up 25 percent of the GOP voters, played an important part.

The polls have been kind to Romney since. A Public Policy Polling rundown of the field in the eyes of Nevada voters had Romney pulling in 31 percent of the vote last week, while Huntsman only posted 1 percent (it climbed to 2 percent if Sarah Palin stays out of the race).

That was before the first public, face-to-face meeting. But on a roster whose significance by itself seemed incomplete — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a relative unknown in Nevada whose national build-up has been somewhat akin to awaiting a political messiah, announced prior to the debate Thursday he’d also be seeking the presidency — Huntsman faded into the background.

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Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011.

His strongest moment came toward the end of the debate, when he scolded his colleagues for not supporting House Speaker John Boehner’s plan to raise the debt limit through an all-cuts deficit reduction plan and chided anyone who suggested the U.S., which has a quarter of the world’s GDP, could have defaulted.

Earlier in the debate, Romney had declared himself a devotee of the House Republicans’ “cut, cap and balance” program of deficit reductions, but during the debt ceiling debate, he announced through his campaign that he would have voted against the deal Boehner made.

Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who voted against every permutation of the debt ceiling bill that came through the House, also spent ample time Thursday night arguing that the country never should have raised the debt limit.

Along the way, she incorrectly cited Standard & Poor’s explanation of why it downgraded the U.S. credit rating in the wake of the debt debate in an attempt to support her position. (S&P did not recommend, as Bachmann said, that the U.S. not raise the debt limit; it bemoaned the politics that ran the process and said it wished the debt ceiling hike had been balanced by greater reforms to entitlement programs and increased tax revenues.)

Huntsman also broke from his colleagues when it came to social issues: he wouldn’t go so far as to call his colleagues wrong-headed for their anti-gay marriage positions but declared himself unequivocally in favor of civil unions.

That’s one area in which his positions may not resonate so well with the notably socially conservative Mormon vote in the GOP. The Mormon church was especially active in the California campaign to pass Proposition 8, the ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage.

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Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. walks away from her fellow GOP candidates at the end of the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011.

“I think Romney’s going to resonate more strongly on social issues among Nevada voters and among Mormon voters,” List said.

But this wasn’t simply a night to pit Romney against Huntsman, who together actually made the most mild and un-spicy appearances of the night. The six other presidential hopefuls drew far more attention.

For Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota’s Bachmann, who is the closest to challenging Romney’s lead, it was a night to settle old scores from the Minnesota state House.

They tore at each other’s records: she, in the ultimate insult, equating his to Barack Obama; he dismissing hers as a lifetime legacy of non-accomplishment.

Bachmann is polling at 10 percent in Nevada, according to last week’s PPP poll. That number jumps to 14 percent if Palin doesn’t run.

Pawlenty’s numbers, meanwhile, have tanked in Nevada since the spring. He’s only pulling 1 percent of the Nevada vote (with no apparent lack-of-Palin boost).

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has been on the rocks since most of his senior staff fled this summer, was equally feisty, throwing barbs at reporters when they asked him to explain the foibles of his campaign and his apparent waffling on other subjects, such as the war in Libya. He accused them of trying to trip him up with “gotcha” questions.

Gingrich is pulling about 6 to 8 percent of the Nevada vote.

The fights that drew the most audience reaction in Ames, Iowa, though, were those that took place between former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

In their three rounds, they tore through a host of national issues, from debt to abortion to foreign policy: Santorum preached the evils of federalism over morality and fear of Iran.

Paul firmly maintained the sanctity of states’ rights and suggested Iran nuclear threats were overblown fearmongering, much like the U.S. engaged in during the run-up to the Iraq war.

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Republican presidential candidates former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greet Fox News' Chris Wallace at the end of the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011.

Santorum — whom moderators all but ignored for the first 45 minutes of the debate — was booed as much as he was cheered for his responses.

Paul, however, was a frequent and most-favored speaker. Not once did the assembled audience fail to give him a rousing round of applause following his remarks, and more often than not, it was punctuated with roaring cheers.

Iowa may not be Nevada, but the building reception here seems to be much the same: Santorum doesn’t even register on polls, while Paul is pulling in almost as much as Bachmann at 9 to 11 percent.

Paul’s libertarian spirit has been well-received in Nevada in the past, but he didn’t stage much of a showing last time around, partially because he was always considered a fringe candidate.

Not so much Thursday night. Even Paul quipped at one point that he was glad to see some of his long-held ideas — particularly about auditing the Fed — had wormed their way into the “mainstream.”

Whether that translates into votes for him depends on what else happens with the other candidates.

Paul, for one, gleefully welcomed the entry of Perry to the race as another “status quo” candidate who would split the vote, creating an opening for him to pull ahead.

In Nevada, that would have to be a pretty big opening. He finished second to Romney in the state caucuses, but Romney pulled 95 percent of the total vote in first place.

It’s not clear whether Paul’s even thinking about Nevada; he certainly didn’t mention it in Iowa.

But the omission wasn’t quite as obvious as it was with Santorum, who pledged to be as face-to-face with the voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina as he had been in Iowa, leaving the Silver State off his early-caucus list.

Nevada, Las Vegas, specifically, hosts the final scheduled GOP presidential debate, which will be broadcast live on CNN in October.

CORRECTION: This story originally indicated Romney won Nevada with 95 percent of the caucus vote in 2008. It has been corrected to 51 percent. | (August 12, 2011)

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