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June 16. 2011 9:20PM

Fergus Cullen: Debating candidates say the darndest things

Which white 1968 presidential candidate said the following: “You have peaceful blacks and then you have militant blacks, those that are trying to kill us. And so, when I said I wouldn’t be comfortable (with a black serving in my administration), I was thinking about the ones that are trying to kill us.”

Wallace? Nixon? No. Substitute “Muslim” for “black” and 2011 for 1968 and you have something Herman Cain said Monday night during the CNN/WMUR/Union Leader debate at St. Anselm College.

It wasn’t Cain’s only cringe-worthy moment. He brought up Sharia law, a new shibboleth of the conspiracy-minded fringe. Asked to assure voters that a businessman who’s never held elected office has the right experience to be President, Cain described Libya as a mess and promised to surround himself with the right people. Had Cain been as weak in last month’s South Carolina debate as he was Monday, would he have earned inclusion in the St. Anselm debate when other candidates on the credibility bubble — Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer — were excluded?

At least Cain went down swinging. Moderator John King lobbed four underhanded pitches to Tim Pawlenty regarding Mitt Romney’s health care law, and Pawlenty barely got the bat off his shoulder before being called out looking. It was not a take-charge, “I’m paying for this microphone” moment. Pawlenty fundraisers and organizers are having a harder time recruiting this week than they did last week.

Pawlenty pandered, going out of his way to mention that most of his family listens to Rush Limbaugh. He made an effort to describe Sarah Palin as “qualified to be President.”

One of Pawlenty’s best lines, if not plagiarized, is at a minimum borrowed without attribution. Here’s Pawlenty Monday night, speaking about 9/11: “They would have killed not 3,000, but 30,000 or 300,000 or 30 million if they could have. If they had the capability to do that in their hands — and as soon as they get it, they’ll try.”

Here’s former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in 2003 about the war in Iraq:

“What was shocking about September 11 was not just the slaughter of the innocent; but the knowledge that had the terrorists been able to, there would have been not 3,000 innocent dead, but 30,000 or 300,000 and the more the suffering, the greater the terrorists’ rejoicing.”

Then there was the moment when Newt Gingrich equated Muslims with Nazis and Communists trying to infiltrate the country. Gingrich suggested Muslim Americans might be treasonist and disloyal. Imagine if a Protestant candidate said that about Catholics.

Ron Paul is being shown more respect than ever, but he is obviously disinterested in mainstreaming his appeal. There he was again referring repeatedly to the Federal Reserve and “sound money.” When most voters hand over four dollar bills in exchange for a gallon of milk, they don’t worry much about whether our monetary system is an illusion.

Rick Santorum brought his dog whistle to the debate, making appeals to people of faith and pro-lifers using language they would hear clearly without offending voters who have other priorities. Like Paul, however, Santorum did little to expand his niche beyond the hard-core social conservatives who are already with him.

For Romney, every answer came down to a noun, a verb, and the economy. Asked about don’t ask, don’t tell, Romney’s response was, “We ought to be talking about the economy and jobs.” Asked about vice presidents, Romney said President Obama has failed at “job one” to get the economy moving again.

And for the roughly two thirds of voters for whom Romney is not their first choice, and with Jon Huntsman inexplicably absent, Michele Bachmann stepped into the not-for-Romney void. Bachmann didn’t stand out just because she was the only woman on the stage, though that is a political asset. She’s warm and charismatic, an anti-Hillary. She proudly mentioned fighting with her own party, which appeals strongly to the Tea Party activists who dislike establishment Republicans at least as much as they dislike the President.

Bachmann ate Pawlenty’s lunch. He may not want to risk letting the Iowa straw poll come down to a one-on-one contest with her.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.

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