I don’t think the debate will change much in the polls, and those without the money are not going to gain some by tonight’s performance. Obama surely gains when the debaters end up shouting at each other and forget about the present mess. Cain took a lot of hits that scored. Here’s a quick take.
Romney: I think he won the weird crossfires with Perry: a) illegal aliens working on his property were hired by contractors, not him personally (most recognize the difference); b) Perry’s ad hominem came off too calculated and studied rather than an ad hoc jousting point. He scored points for being above the fray, and parried all the blows pretty well. Along with Gingrich and Santorum, he seems to have the best command of the facts, and is doing a good job presenting a certain presidential calm. He is often aware that the debate is being watched by independents as well as the base. When he survives these sharp attacks, he gets better — much better than in 2008. The flash of anger at Perry was a sort of Reagan “I’m paying for this” moment.
Gingrich: A person from Mars would conclude that once again Gingrich is the most impressive in debates, especially his efforts to steer the attacks back to Obama’s policies. His above-the-fray lectures come off very well. He should reflect why it is, then, that when he does so well in debates and so often is the best informed, he gets little traction in polls — and then address that paradox.
Bachmann: She is well-informed and comes up with some strange, but welcome, takes on issues that few have thought of — like her quips on foreclosures, illegal immigration, Israel, and 9-9-9. For someone who is supposed to be wacky, Bachmann came across tonight as sensible and often imaginative. Along with Cain, she is the coolest under fire, and the lower she sinks in the polls, the more relaxed and better she is in debate — as if the less pressure, the more natural she appears.
Cain: At some point reiterating “9-9-9” or referring to his website is simply not enough. He is fearless and candid, and that counts for a lot, but without at least some detail he comes off more as a salesman. One would think he at least would make a 20-second pitch that he is trying to encourage more production and investment and discourage consumption, or articulate exactly why the half that doesn’t pay income taxes should pay quite a lot through his federal sales taxes and 9 percent income tax — or to what extent a national sales tax would, in EU style, create (or not) an even bigger underground, off-the-books economy. On too many occasions, he doesn’t answer the particular question asked or obfuscates about his past statements. But again there seems no interest in detail at all. Too many weird things about electric fences and trading captives for terrorists = too little political experience and not enough prep. His chief strength: He remains absolutely unflappable! But we don’t elect presidents on that admirable trait.
Perry: He is not the somnolent Perry of past debates, but his animation is mostly ad hominem and comes off mean-spirited. He seems to have realized that midway, and gets better when he talks about energy. Tonight: two steps forward for passion, two and a half steps back for a bothersome abrasiveness. Passion is not just invective.
Paul: He gets a lot of applause for reducing problems to sheer simplicity. But the more he talks, the more it is clear that he is a neo-isolationist. At this point, I don’t see how getting rid of the Federal Reserve is viable when fiscal discipline in the past was not antithetical to it. Fifteen percent cut to the Defense Department? All those cabinets cut in a year? Abruptly withdraw the troops from South Korea? I guess it is to be “starve the beast”: First, cut the military, and then they can’t go abroad. (No aid to Israel makes it stronger?) He can sound good on the economy, and some cuts in foreign aid, but all in all, he is simply not a serious presidential candidate.
Santorum: His is a more informed, more analytical version of Perry’s personal-attack mode; somehow he pulls it off a little better because he offers detail. He rarely says anything that doesn’t make sense. But he seems visibly exasperated, almost to the point of sputtering, that his rivals don’t reply to his revelations about their purported hypocrisies — but why would they? He needs to adopt a little more of Herman Cain’s sunny disposition and cheer up, since otherwise he seems perennially angry that the debate, like life, is not fair and his talents go unrecognized.