This remains a two-man race between Romney and Perry, with Romney way out ahead. Perry’s status as a successful three-term governor of a large state with a great economic record, means he still has some time to mount a serious challenge to Romney. So far, it hasn’t happened.
Did Perry help himself tonight? Yes, in the sense that he showed more energy than in the last debate, and so lived to fight another day. Perry does alright when he’s in his wheelhouse, but he’s awkward on other issues. That awkwardness is showing too often. Perry’s policy knowledge is clearly limited.
Can he improve? Does he even want to? I don’t know. Sometimes it seems as though Perry doesn’t think these debates are all that important to his chances. Is he willing and able to do the work it takes to improve? The jury’s still out on that. Perry has the time and money to turn things around, but it’ll be an uphill climb.
Mitt got seriously hit for the first time tonight. The damage wasn’t all that great, but at least the challengers woke up to the fact that effectively going after the leader is a better way to advance themselves than mixing it up with each other. Santorum has performed consistently well in these debates. If he has any chance of breaking out, it’s through the sort of attack he leveled on Romney tonight.
Bachmann did little to help herself this evening. She was great on the financial crisis in the last debate. Her point about mothers and nests today had the crowd primed to listen to the substantive part of her answer to the banking question. It never came. Chanting “one term president” for the umpteenth time didn’t work either.
What about the field’s new star, Herman Cain? I thought Cain did reasonably well when the others ganged up on his 9-9-9 plan, although the attacks clearly drew some blood. When defending his plan, Cain needs to do a better job of stressing all the taxes he’s repealing, instead of letting his opponents talk about the taxes he’s adding.
The real problem is, and will remain, that Cain has no political experience and apparently a complete lack of familiarity with foreign policy and national security issues. No matter how appealing Cain is, no matter how bold his plan, no matter how badly conservatives want and need to support a challenger to the right of Mitt Romney, it’s difficult to take Cain seriously as a potential nominee. That leaves Perry, with all he still needs to prove.
So as of now, Mitt is still the one.