Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith National Debate Coach of the Year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.
(CNN) -- Michele Bachmann understands that to fill her campaign sail (I'm going with a nautical theme today), she must steal that air from the sails of the leading candidates.
But stealing anything from a politician, especially hot air, is never easy. In the final contest before the new year and the Iowa voting begins, Bachmann took the debate to the leading candidates at Thursday night's Republican presidential Sioux City debate, and in doing so she was pretty successful at slowing two of the frontrunners' boats.
Her quarry? Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. (Mitt Romney came out relatively unscathed with a stronger performance than his last debate.)
There were three areas of prolonged exchange during the debate, which was sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party and Fox News. The first was an attack on Gingrich about his work with Freddie Mac, and the money he received from the government-sponsored mortgage company. Gingrich recently said, when referring to Congress, that politicians supporting Freddie Mac should be jailed. So the question put to him was: Why should he be excluded? Gingrich's answer: He was a private citizen and therefore it was fine for him to profit from Freddie Mac. Perhaps true, but Gingrich drifted off course by begging the question's premise.
But the thing about having a series of debates is that the debaters have already heard their opponents' arguments and should be ready with a second line of attack. I coach my debate teams to prepare a second, and even a third line of argument on any given issue in order to keep our opponents from getting off the hook.
Bachmann did that. It was anchors aweigh when Gingrich next said, "I did no lobbying of any kind ..." Bachmann called Freddie Mac the epicenter of the financial meltdown, a scam, and said that Gingrich received $1.6 million in handouts to influence senior Republicans. She reminded the audience that Gingrich didn't have to be within the technical definition of lobbyist to be peddling influence.
Bachmann finished by stating flatly that Republicans could not have such a person as a nominee. Unfortunately for Gingrich, his answers about his work with Freddie Mac did not stand up to the extended scrutiny last night.
A second lengthy exchange came over Gingrich's critique of the judiciary. He said he believes some "anti-American" courts should be abolished and judges should be subpoenaed by Congress to answer for their decisions. Here again, Gingrich's original answer played well with the audience, but needed a lifeboat by the end of the discussion. Paul said that getting rid of courts just because Congress doesn't like their decisions would lead to trouble and would pose a threat to the separation of powers.
Romney continued the analysis with a reminder that there were better options, like appointing conservative judges or having Congress pass amendments that, in effect, override court decisions. He argued that a method to rein in justices already exists. Romney scored with a comment that having Congress subpoena judges was a poor idea, since "the only group that has less credibility than justices ... is Congress."
The final protracted dust-up was among Paul and others over Iran. Paul was ganged up on, first by Fox channel host Bret Baier, who characterized Paul as left of Obama on Iran; then by Rick Santorum, who said that Iran is practically at war with the United States; and finally by Bachmann, who said Paul's position was dangerous for American security because Iran will use a nuclear weapon once it gets one.
Paul hit back, saying that the United States has no money right now, doesn't need another war and should use diplomacy. He added, "to me, the greatest danger is that we would overreact." Bachmann parried quickly, calling his position the "greatest under-reaction in world history." While they both made their point, it is hard to believe that in a debate by Republicans to Republicans, Paul won much support for his stance. And Bachmann's ability to hammer the point time and time again probably hurt Paul's status among conservative voters.
Who profited from all this? Everyone else. Rick Perry had his best debate yet, Jon Huntsman was statesman-like, while Santorum and Bachmann continued touting their conservative values. But mostly it played right into Romney's wheelhouse. He had a terrific debate. Plus, Romney gave Gingrich a wide berth by steering clear of direct attacks, since he knew his fellow opponents would lay into Gingrich in this final debate before the Iowa vote.
Romney was correct. Attack they did. And it just might take Mitt Romney closer to the captain's seat.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.