A raucous, old-fashioned kind of debate 

Things got awfully intense at more than a few points in Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa. And that’s exactly as it should have been because the stakes in the 2012 election are extraordinarily high. The GOP field of aspirants are passionate, highly talented and determined to make sure President Barack Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office ends in 2013.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was pressed at several points, but emerged from the evening secure in his position as the front-runner, at least for now. He still lacks a persuasive answer to critics who say his Romneycare health reform bears great similarities to Obamacare, but his answers were otherwise mostly crisp and detailed.

In contrast, neither of the two Minnesota contenders — former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann did themselves any good with their back-and-forth bickering over alleged flaws in each other’s records. Pawlenty did, finally, make his case against “Obamneycare,” but otherwise did not distinguish himself. The quarreling removed some of the luster Bachmann’s candidacy has acquired in recent weeks.

Three of the GOP debaters were most conspicuous by what they failed to do on the stage. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is strong on virtually all of the issues conservatives most care about, but nothing he said Thursday answered this critical question about his candidacy: Why on earth should America take a chance on another former senator in the Oval Office?

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman desperately needed a strong showing Thursday to revive a campaign that started badly on its first day and has gone downhill ever since, thanks to internal staff strife and the near-invisibility of the candidate. There were fitful bursts of energy here and there, but there is still no logical sum of the parts.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich was what everybody has come to expect — a deeply knowledgeable guy with an endless supply of ideas, proposals and insights. Beating up on Fox News’ Chris Wallace and Brett Baier, however, does not make a compelling case for putting him in the White House.

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain is clearly a smart guy with a superb record of business success. But he has yet to demonstrate why that means he should be president.

Which brings us finally to Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, now making his third try at the presidency. Paul is nothing if not consistent, and he again made clear Thursday that he sees nothing good coming from federal regulation or “militarism.” Combining a “liberty first” with an isolationist “America first” revival is novel, but his defense of the latter always seems to veer.

We close with a caution: The GOP aspirants displayed energy, ambition and optimism for America — and confidence about denying Obama a second term. It’s a long road to the White House in 2012, however, and regardless who becomes the GOP nominee, they will face a formidable opponent willing to do most anything to win. Emphasis  on “anything.”

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