On Wednesday, I spent a few hours with some other talking heads at CNBC's high-tech New Jersey headquarters while watching the Republican presidential candidate debate. I was thrilled to be part of this "A-Team" of economic luminaries, mostly Democrats, including former Ohio Governor Bob Strickland, former Clinton economist Lawrence Lindsey, former U.S. News and World Report owner Mort Zuckerman, Obama transition leader Leo Hindery, and Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
Surrounded by several TV sets, we commented to each other, and what follows is a brief summary of reactions to the debate, including my own views:
CNBC won. It crisply hosted an unusually substantive debate. Maria Bartiromo and John Harwood showed their moxie repeatedly by insisting on answers from candidates. Only once did we cringe. After Rick Perry's awkward moment of blanking on the last in the trio of unneeded government agencies, Harwood, vulture-like, insisted Perry name all three again. Perry crumbled and just gave up. Effective but mean. Even presidential candidates should be forgiven the occasional "senior moment," and Perry's crystallized the nightmare of anyone with a fear of public speaking.
The Republicans won. Each candidate spoke with conviction and presented a strong alternative to the status quo. More, the candidates did not attack each other, which was perhaps the result of a pre-debate agreement. After the ugly Las Vegas debate last month, which featured personal attacks by Rick Santorum and Perry against Mitt Romney, Wednesday night was refreshing. The candidates were clearly united in a desire to simplify taxes, remove jobs-killing rules and approach the economy from the perspective of people who create jobs. Bachmann -- Taxacious! Often portrayed as a policy lightweight, Michele Bachmann showed she deserved her Master of Laws in taxation. She spouted real numbers and clear solutions with actual substance. Only once did she revert to the divisive "build the wall with Mexico" rhetoric.
Cain -- "Bold" Persistence. Not only did the studio audience boo Maria Bartiromo for pushing the "character" issue, but surprisingly, my fellow CNBC guests, mostly Democrat luminaries, seemed convinced by his denials. As someone who has signed several employee severance agreements while running a similarly sized association, I can't imagine not recalling charges against me. Herman Cain's problems have so dominated the news that his opponents saw no need to challenge his 9-9-9 plan. Cain frustrates. Liberals are near apoplectic that a black Republican, much less one accused of sexual harassment, can be ahead in the polls. Policy experts pall at his shallow and narrow answers to every question. At one point Newt Gingrich and Romney visibly reacted in disbelief as Cain parried yet one more tough question by reverting to the "bold" and "9-9-9" rhetoric. Yet Cain persists.
Gingrich -- Histrionic Historian. Gingrich is both smart and accomplished but not enough of either so he doesn't feel compelled to lecture everyone about the past. He foolishly attacked the beloved Maria Bartiromo for giving him only 30 seconds to describe his solution to health care. Bartiromo wisely told him to take more time and he recovered with a well-summarized answer. He usually rejects the question, blames the media (Why don't they ask Wall Street protestors basic economic questions like who would pay for the park?) and provides silver bullet solutions (he has the secret "cure" for Alzheimer's and cancer). His rise in the polls suggests that some believe that smart people magically will provide easy answers to tough problems.
Huntsman -- Dull Jewel. Jon Huntsman was the CNBC luminary guest favorite, and many of my colleagues in studio consider the former Utah governor the most appealing to challenge Obama. His corporate and government experience, substance, reasonable solutions and decency make him a serious candidate. But the same seriousness, lack of dynamism and failure to capture donors or headlines against similarly credentialed Romney keep him in the back of the pack. He may do better if he survives a few primaries and Romney falters.
Paul -- Principled Libertarian Uncle. Rep. Ron Paul again set himself apart from the pack with his strong and consistent libertarian views. He would be more effective if he didn't assume Americans read Ludwig von Mises or even understood the role of the Federal Reserve. Wednesday night, he struck a chord by describing the horrifying impact of low interest rates on the large retired population relying on interest from savings. He could go further if he stuck to a few of these real life descriptors and got media coaching to stop coming off as the old, crotchety uncle. Perry -- Paralyzed Performer. Even before Wednesday's paralyzing performance, Perry played the poorly fit talking head atop someone else's body. He's a nice guy, but like others once leading in the polls, Perry suffers from insurmountably high expectations and is not ready for prime time.
Romney -- Business Candidate Without a Heart. Wednesday night was Romney's forte -- business, the economy and jobs. He won by not losing. But the CNBC luminaries in the studio critiqued his delivery and body language. When pressed, Romney has a nervous laugh, speaks too quickly and raises his voice. His body rarely conveys warmth or humanity. Americans want to like their president. While Romney is strong, smart, experienced and says the right things, he will lose to President Obama if he doesn't occasionally let his guard down and share that he is a real person that can relate to and inspire Americans. More, Romney has been accused of flip-flopping. As the business candidate, Romney could explain that successful business leaders have core ethical principles but they change their views with new facts and experiences. It's Romney's election to lose, but it's not even half time and he seems to be running out the clock with short running plays, and fourth down kicks. Romney must shift from a Ken doll who always says what Republicans want to hear to a man whom we passionately want to follow.
In the studio, I noticed something as well about my fellow talking heads. Privately, Democratic luminaries fret over Obama's leadership and worry that his failure on the economy will sink his campaign. In front of the cameras, however, they will defend him and attack the Republican candidates and positions. They seem only sincere in their attack on the Republicans.
Wednesday's debate proved Republicans will choose a candidate with a radically different approach than President Obama. Any candidate they choose will divert from President Obama's pro-regulation, blame-the-rich divisiveness. Come November 2012, Americans will make a stark choice on whether they believe a shift to a pro-business strategy is best for jobs, growth and our future.
But Republicans need a competent and likable candidate that can inspire Americans. Wednesday night's debate helped establish the competency of many of the candidates, and CNBC deserves kudos for hosting a serious and adult discussion on critical economic issues.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, "The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.