Ron Brownstein argues that the Republican presidential candidates have:
coalesced around an economic agenda that will propose sharper reductions in federal taxes, spending, and regulation than the party has offered in decades. That convergence will diminish the role of ideology in the nomination contest--but then increase it in the general election.
There is some truth to that, but the way the CNN Republican debate was moderated tended to amplify this tendency. It doesn't make much sense to ask a question about repealing Obamacare. They're all for repealing Obamacare. Making it about Obamacare or how to repeal Obamacare creates a situation where the candidates compete to be the "real" conservative not through their policy preferences, but through self-marketing. One candidate says he will repeal Obamacare on his first day as President. Another candidate says she was the first member of the House of Representatives to introduce a repeal of Obamacare. Luckily no one has cut off a finger to demonstrate their sincere desire to repeal Obamacare. Yet.
The debates would be better (for viewers, and for the general election chances of the Republican Party probably - but not for the comfort of the candidates) if the debate questions focused on how particular policies would affect individuals and subgroups. It would be more useful and more interesting to see how much (if any) the Pawlenty tax plan saves middle-class families vs. the Romney tax plan vs. the Bachmann tax plan. It would be interesting to learn how much more they expect seniors to pay out of pocket due to their Medicare reforms and why (along with other health care reforms) this might be a good thing in the end. This could set off some interesting scrums among the candidates and these are also going to be the kinds of questions that the Republican presidential candidate will face in the general election - where the swing voters won't care about who is the realest real conservative.