A Different Kind Of Presidential Forum

Last night's Huckabee Presidential Forum was different, and surprisingly substantive.

Last night’s Huckabee Presidential Forum on Fox News Channel was different from the debates we’ve seen so far this election cycle. For one thing, for the majority of the broadcast, the candidates did not share the stage for the majority of the debate, instead each candidate (Romney, Paul, Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, and Gingrich were in attendance) spent roughly 10 minutes a piece being questioned by Huckabee along with trio of Republican Attorneys General consisting of Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia, Pam Bondi of Florida, and Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma. The one advantages of the format is that it allowed for more in depth questions and answers than we’ve seen in the eight or nine candidates debate this year where time limits are short and strictly enforced. The other thing that was missing from this debate was any of the back-and-forth attacking that we’ve seen in recent debates, since the candidates didn’t share the stage until the very end of the broadcast there was no opportunity to do so.The final difference is that, this time, the questioning came from a panel of mostly friendly Republican politicians rather than journalists, which definitely changed the tone of the eventing:

The presidential race began Saturday with Herman Cain’s dramatic, theatrical exit from the contest, but it ended with a substantive and subdued discussion of constitutional issues at Mike Huckabee’s presidential forum.

Each allotted an equal, set amount of time, six 2012 hopefuls – Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul – fielded questions on issues of state sovereignty and federal power from a friendly panel of Republican moderators.

Huckabee hosted the forum on an extended version of his Fox News show, and invited three Republican state attorneys general – Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia, Pam Bondi of Florida and Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma – to question the candidates.

“We heard more about the Constitution more than every other debate combined,” Bondi concluded at the end of the two-hour event.


Gingrich was pressed on some of his more moderate stances – namely, his support for a health care mandate and his appearance in a commercial with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, where the two talked about climate change.

“Sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi is the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years — but if you notice, I’ve never favored cap and trade, and in fact I actively testified against it,” Gingrich said. “I was at the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee the same day Al Gore was there to testify for it, I testified against it and through American Solutions we fought it in the Senate and played a major role in defeating it.”

Perry, who has turned in a string of embarrassing debate performances, didn’t make any major gaffes, but did stumble slightly when Cuccinelli challenged him on the assertion that an executive order would effectively repeal health care reform.

“The executive order obviously gives you that authority [to repeal the law],” he told Cuccinelli. “But also, as I said earlier, having men and women in those agencies who are going to share your philosophy – I think that’s an important message.”

Cuccinelli shot back: “I just want to be real clear to make sure I understand this: You are taking the position that you can stop the implementation of a law passed by Congress, signed by the president, with an executive order?”

Perry walked his comments back, saying an executive order could stop “parts” of the health care law.

And Romney defended his role in shaping the Massachusetts health care law, saying the final bill was “different” than the one he’d originally proposed but that he was pleased with the imperfect end result.

“Do I like the bill overall? Yes. Am I proud of what we did for our state? Yes,” he said. “But what the president has done is way beyond what we envisioned.”

The New York Times took a slightly different tack, characterizing the forum as a test of the candidates conservatives bona fides:

Six Republican presidential candidates faced tough questioning on their ideological bona fides and the coherence of their proposals during a policy-heavy forum shown on Fox News Channel on Saturday night.

With a gantlet of three conservative state attorneys general peppering the candidates with questions, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was pressed on how conservatives can “trust that a President Gingrich will not advance these sorts of big government approaches” that he had advocated in the past, including his one-time support for a mandate that citizens obtain health insurance. Mr. Gingrich noted that he did so in league with other conservatives and that “every conservative has in fact left that kind of a model.”

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was asked how she would carry out her call to remove all illegal immigrants living in the United States or pay an estimated cost of $135 billion to do so. “It would be enforcement both at the border but also by the ICE agents,” she said.

And Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was asked pointed questions about his health care overhaul there, and what he would say to President Obama if Mr. Obama were to note during a general election debate its similarities to the federal health care law so hated by Republicans. “Why didn’t you give me a call?” he said, reprising a well-worn line from the campaign trail.

The candidates faced these sharp questions from a roster of attorneys general who have filed legal cases against the 2009 health care law: Pam Bondi of Florida, who brought the original suit the Supreme Court has agreed to hear; Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia, who has been a spokesman for legal action against the law; and Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma. They were gathered by the Fox News host — and 2008 Republican presidential candidate — Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas.

It was one of the more substantive television events in the Republican contest so far, set up as a forum where candidates faced the panel solo and did not directly interact, leaving the intraparty politics largely out of it, with the exception of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who urged the television audience to give him “a second look.” That was a tacit acknowledgment of his drop in polls and, perhaps, a new opportunity after Herman Cain’s decision earlier Saturday to suspend his campaign.

The attorneys general, new to presidential debate-style politics, were hardly cowed by their appearance on national television. Nor did they let their own general ideological agreement with the candidates get in the way of tough questions about how they would carry out their proposals. But the attorneys general seemed to give Mr. Gingrich the hardest time.

The substance of the debate was about what you’d expect, and I’m not sure you can say that anyone “won” this thing, but that’s not really the point. In a lot of ways, this may have been the best debate/forum/whatever you want to call it of the election cycle. Not so much because of what the candidates said, but because of the forum itself. Instead of expecting candidates to come up with 1 or 2 minute answers to questions, 30 second responses, and waiting to see which candidate commits a gaffe and which one gets in the best zinger, the intent was clearly to actually concentrate on substance, and it showed. Initially, for example, I wasn’t optimistic about the idea of three Attorneys General being the people asking questions, but it ended up turning out fairly well. Instead of focusing on questions from journalists guaranteed to grab headlines and “make news,” we got some more substance, which is something that’s sadly lacking in modern politics as a whole.

The one-on-one questioning format is one that I’d hope would be adopted by other debate organizers in the future. It would be difficult early in the process, of course, because a two hour debate consisting of 8 or 9 candidates would mean an average of 13 to 15 minutes per candidate, and that’s not including commercial breaks. Last night, each candidate actually ended up being questioned for about 11 minutes each, not a lot of time, but certainly time enough to have a more intelligent discussion of issues than the traditional Presidential primary debate. Even with the questions being asked by a panel of journalists, I would think that voters would get a lot more out of one of these forums that out of a “debate” where half the questions end up being asked by people on YouTube. Take a look at what Mike Huckabee (yes Mike Huckabee, I know) did last night, media and think about how you can copy it.

Herman Cain was missing last night, for obvious reasons, although Cain had apparently declined the invitation before he made his announcement yesterday, perhaps because he knew what he was going to do. The frequent debate participant that was missing, though, was Jon Huntsman. Apparently, at least according to Mike Huckabee, Huntsman was invited but had declined to attend. I think this was a mistake on his part. Granted, Jon Huntsman is unlikely to find many friends right now on Fox News Channel, but this was exactly the kind of forum where I suspect he would have come across very, very well. Besides, it would have been free television time and when you’re far behind in the polls and the fundraising, you should accept as much of that as you can. Perhaps Huntsman had some kind of conflict last night in New Hampshire, but if that’s the case then I think he made the wrong choice. Huckabee’s show is the highest rated weekend show on cable, and while that’s not a huge audience, it’s larger than any you can gather in someone’s living room in Manchester.

Jazz Shaw has an in depth summary of the substance of the forum that I’d recommend to your attention, or if you’re so inclined, you can watch the entire thing for yourself.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Climate Change, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. steve says:

    Came across mostly as a contest to prove who could be the most conservative. However, I do agree that the format worked pretty well. I would like to see something similar but with less friendly questioners, especially for the general election.


  2. I wasn’t optimistic about the idea of three Attorneys General being the people asking questions, but it ended up turning out fairly well.

    Actually, that sounds like a great choice, since they’re essentially people who’s profession is knowing how to question people who a reluctant to give open answers.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    C’mon…Bachmann can’t answer questions about claims of deporting people, Perry can’t answer questions about claims of executive priviledge, Gingrich and Romney can’t answer claims about health care.
    What we saw last night, and throughout this primary campaign is not conservatism…it is radicalism…it is a libertarian-inspired utopia-ism that is completely contrary to real conservatism.
    As I wrote on another thread: they are not posing reality-based reforms for very real problems we face…they are simply spewing dogma. The follow up questions by Cuccinelli began to expose this…but he backed off. Obama will rip it wide f’ing open.

  4. Jolly Roger says:

    “it’s larger than any you can gather in someone’s living room in Manchester.”

    Unless it’s a Manchester United party!!

  5. Norm,

    My commentary was directed more toward the format of the debate than the substance, obviously.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    Exactly…and the format ripped the scab off the weakness of the field.

  7. MBunge says:

    “Huntsman was invited but had declined to attend. I think this was a mistake on his part.”

    People, liberals and conservatives, keep talking about Huntsman in very positive terms, but this campaign of his is making me seriously question his wisdom and character. I don’t see how he could have ever, ever, ever, ever, ever thought that he could slide from working for Barack Obama to being the GOP nominee. It speaks of either an arrogance or a disconnection from his own party that is nearly pathological. And if he were actually running for 2016, his “all in” strategy in New Hampshire this time around doesn’t make any sense. He should be getting out there and trying to build himself up everywhere.


  8. Hey Norm says:

    Mike…I think you are correct…but in a sane world working for Obama in the service of his country would not dis-qualify him from running for office in the GOP. That is just a small part of the tragedy that is the GOP today.

  9. Tano says:


    if he were actually running for 2016, his “all in” strategy in New Hampshire this time around doesn’t make any sense. He should be getting out there and trying to build himself up everywhere.

    I disagree. If he wants to be considered in 2016, he needs to make at least some sort of a splash this time around. His odds of doing so are far higher if he comes in a strong second, or even third in NH, and maybe has a strong showing in a few other moderate states.It would nail down his identity as a (or the) leading potential candidate for Republican moderates for ’16 – and if that is what the party will be looking for in ’16, then he will have an inside track.

    Rather than spreading himself around the country and moving his numbers everywhere up from 2% to 4%. That just leaves him with a permanent identity as a fringe candidate.

  10. Hey Norm says:

    Wait…if Huntsman is setting up a run in ’16 does that mean he agrees with Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, and me that Obama can’t be beaten?

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Policy is irrelevant in this election. The idea that GOP voters sit around contrasting this position versus that position is nonsense. This is all about seething, incoherent rage. They are looking for a vehicle to express that rage effectively.

    The word “effectively” explains the fall of Bachmann and Perry and now Cain. All were good at frothing at the mouth. But one by one it has been driven home to GOP voters that none of those three can possibly win against Obama.

    Here’s the dilemma: there is no way to both adequately express GOP rage and win.

    Huntsman is disqualified because he is not filled with hate and fury. Romney tops out at 20% for the same reason. The other 75-80% of GOP voters are casting about frantically for a rage machine who can also plausibly win. They are down to Gingrich.

    Gingrich is perfect for the rag-o-holic portion of the event. He is the living embodiment of the GOP voter’s inflated sense of his own brilliance: he’s mean, he’s unlikable, he’s unstable, he’s incompetent — everything they want in a candidate.

    So now we are at the crossroads. Reality must be faced. A choice must be made: A) Incoherent rage. B) Victory.

    This is why the Obama campaign is now attacking Romney. If they can make Romney’s prospects of victory seem smaller they alter the equation and push the GOP voters toward whoever best expresses their inner nastiness. The Obama campaign wants the GOP to be the GOP. And who better to embody that political snake-pit than Newt Gingrich?

  12. ponce says:

    Throughout this entire political Grand Guignol Huck-Huck-Huckabee was probably thinking, “I coulda won this thing easy.”

  13. Tano says:

    @Hey Norm:

    if Huntsman is setting up a run in ’16 does that mean he agrees with Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, and me that Obama can’t be beaten?

    Probably “won’t” be beaten rather than “can’t” be beaten….

  14. doubter4444 says:

    So is Tim Paulenty. He’s most likely cursing himself for bailing every morning when he looks in the mirror.

  15. @doubter4444:

    Tim Pawlenty is also lamenting the fact that people don’t even remember how to spell is name now 😀

    (Sorry, I know it was a typo but I could not resist)

  16. BobDD says:

    @Hey Norm:

    If you know Obama cannot be beat under any circumstances, then you’re sure to really clean up on Intrade. Congratulations in advance.

  17. mattb says:

    Perhaps you understand how to read Intrade better than I, but as far as I can tell, the going line there is that Obama has a 50/50 chance. That isn’t a big pay off.

    Now if you bet now on Gingrich winning and he pulled it off… that would be a real winner, considering that the currently line only gives him an 18% chance of pulling it off.

    Last I checked, 50% is far better odds than 18%…


  18. Dazedandconfused says:

    It really should be termed an interview, I think. The problem with that term is that it is also used as the name for the sort if interviews that are more common, which the candidates submit too only when assured they are going to be well fellated, or when the person giving it is at least as ignorant as they are.

    Huck deserves credit for providing a superior format than the “debate for eight” have been.

  19. Doc Dan says:

    @steve: what questions could be asked by a non-friendly questioners that the “friendly” questioners did not ask? The questions were probing and issue- oriented, reflecting the issues that concern everyone no matter if one is a Democrat, Republican or Independent. Who cares about party politics, I’m interested in what solutions these aspirants propose in contrast to the sitting president’s failed policies. Newt had the best, comprehensive, intelligent, and thorough answers. In a debate, he will eat Obama up.

  20. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: Attacking Romney may backfire for the Obama campaign because if Obama is attacking him even the rage-o-holics may see that Romney represents the best chance for their rage to come to fruition.

    If anything, Obama’s campaign should be endorsing Romney as challenging moderate choice–telling the potential supporters nothing that they don’t already know and further distancing him from his selectorate by branding him as a RINO. The best choice, I think, is to sit back and watch the race waiting for the crashes.