Thursday, May 5, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: A Beauty Contest Without the Beauties

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 5, 2011

Former Gov. Gary Johnson, who last month threw his ski cap into the Republican presidential ring, announced this week that he'll participate in the first GOP presidential debate in South Carolina.

That big show takes place tonight. If you haven't already bought a plane ticket for Greenville, S.C., you can catch the encounter at 7 p.m. MST on the Fox News Channel.

I'm sure the Democrats will have some awful things to say about the event — just like the Republicans do for Democratic debates. But one accusation that won't be leveled is that this showdown was overhyped.

Unfortunately for Johnson and the four others taking part in the debate, the little national attention paid to the debate has focused more on who won't be there than who will.

No Sarah Palin. No Mitt Romney. No Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Mitch Daniels or Jon Huntsman. Not even Donald Trump.

Thus, the headlines scream, or actually yawn: "First Republican debate lacking party's biggest names," "Republican debate will feature depleted lineup" and "First GOP debate likely to be a low-key affair."

Even worse, some observers have even taken to insulting the candidates who are showing up.

The online Real Clear Politics on Wednesday quoted South Carolina GOP operative Bob McAlister saying, "It's like a beauty contest where all the women are ugly."

Reporter Scott Convoy went on to say that with so many top-tier candidates sitting this one out, those who show up "could appear more like the Feeble Five than the cream of the GOP's crop."
This is not Herman Caine

Besides Johnson, the other expected candidates are former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Flashback to 2003: Johnson and the others might take heart in knowing that around 1991, many pundits were saying similar things about the not-so-well-known Democrats vying to challenge incumbent President George H.W. Bush. But one of those challengers, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, went on to win the White House the next year.

The last time an incumbent president faced re-election, in 2004, the opposition party held its first debate of that election cycle in Albuquerque.

That was in September 2003. Eight of the nine Democratic candidates seeking to take on incumbent George W. Bush descended upon the state. (The Rev. Al Sharpton was the only no-show. He reportedly had a flight canceled due to bad weather.)

That debate generated lots of excitement for New Mexico political junkies.

Then-front-runner Howard Dean held a rally in Santa Fe, packing a downtown coffee house the night before the debate. Many other candidates held events in Albuquerque the next day.

Eventual nominee John Kerry read to preschool kids at a Head Start center. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman showed up at the Barelas Coffee House on Fourth Street Southwest, where he nibbled at a beef burrito and gabbed with 11 Democratic state legislators from Texas, who had fled their state in an effort to thwart a Republican redistricting effort. Both Dean and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich held separate rallies on The University of New Mexico campus.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson, who introduced the debate, did more than a dozen interviews on national television. But his memories of that day probably aren't fond ones.

That was the night he let a Washington Post reporter tag along with him. That reporter ended up writing a piece about Richardson smoking a cigar in a no-smoking building at UNM and commanding his state police driver to step on the gas and drive at speeds of 110 mph on Interstate 40 to make it to a post-debate fundraiser for Lieberman.