It was Romney’s worst debate so far, if only because his opponents finally delved a little deeper on Romneycare and for the first time ever he showed anger in public. The exchange with Perry on illegal immigrants was quite extraordinary–Romney actually reached out and touched Perry on the shoulder when he was trying to get him to stop talking, the kind of physical contact that should always be out of bounds. Romney came out fine on the merits of the exchange. The lawnworkers thing feels a little like a cheap shot and Perry is not in a strong position to attack on illegal immigration. But Romney suggested he didn’t want illegals working on his property because he was running for office–a line we’ll probably hear more about. And Romney came off as a little frantic and maybe too much of a hall monitor about the debate rules.
Otherwise, though, Romney was strong. He scored against Cain on 999, nailing down how the Cain sales tax will come on top of state sales taxes during the apples-and-oranges exchange; he took care to get to his broader economic message when he could; he hit a home run on his Mormonism answer; and, typically, he took care to be mindful of a prospective general election audience by saying the entire field welcomes legal immigration.
The center of attention early, Cain was weak defending his signature 999 proposal. Getting a barrage form all of the rest of the candidates, including Ron Paul who denounced the plan as regressive, Cain didn’t rebut on the details, but kept on saying people had to read his own campaign’s analysis and that apples shouldn’t be compared to oranges. If this is a sign of things to come, there’s tough sledding ahead for 999; Steve Moore may be right that it’s just too hard to defend a new national sales tax.
Cain also continued to maintain that it’s all but epistemologically impossible for him to answer a foreign policy question with any specificity. He had his best moment with the audience repeating his bold and caustic critique of Occupy Wall Street. He was as likable as ever, but there are cracks in the edifice.
Perry showed up, an improvement over New Hampshire. His statements on energy were strong, and–as mentioned above–he at least got under Romney’s skin. But he still can’t take him down in a toe-to-toe match. That, I suppose, is what a $15 million warchest is for.
Santorum has good things to say. He’s the candidate who sounds most clued into cultural breakdown and the economic struggles of blue-collar workers, but he can’t keep himself from getting too over-eager and yappy. Also, he can sound absurdly boastful, even for a presidential candidate.
Surprisingly, at times, Ron Paul was the reality check, noting for instance that Wall Street did have a role in the financial crisis; Newt Gingrich was good answer-to-answer but always seems less than the sum of his parts; Michele Bachmann constantly brought it back to President Obama but has killed her one-term-president line absolutely and completely dead.