To use his own colloquialism, there is no question but that Mitt Romney won this debate. And he showed something new as well — serious chops in quick sparring and debating skill one on one. He was quick and effective against Herman Cain on the state-tax issue, Rick Perry on several issues (most effectively, at the end, judging someone on their past), and Newt Gingrich on the issue of the health-care mandate’s origins. It was a stellar performance. I am yet to be convinced he’s the inevitable nominee but one cannot gainsay his debating skills, especially compared with the others.
Rick Perry did not overcome his debating-skills deficit. He came out of the box in his opening statement with a negative jab that seemed wrong for the moment and went downhill from there. One simply cannot look uninterested at best and throw jabs that don’t land at worst, especially when it is clear the strategy is to debate (and campaign) negatively.
Rick Santorum got more time tonight than in other debates — to his credit and the electorate’s benefit. A smart observer of politics told me a few months back that when you look at Santorum on the issues, e.g., what he’s not afraid to stand up for, what he’s willing to bring up when nobody else will, his depth of knowledge, and his consistent record of conservatism, “Rick Santorum is the Republican candidate the movement has said it has wanted for about 20 years now.” Somehow the movement has not seen that this year, but that sentiment was rejustified tonight.
I don’t know how many primary voters saw tonight’s debate, but if the answer is “a lot,” I would be surprised if Newt Gingrich doesn’t see a bump in his numbers as well. He has been consistently clever and surprisingly non-negative in these debates. And tonight was his best showing yet.
It’s very difficult not to like Herman Cain — his cheerfulness is practically infectious. But this seemed about the fourth time in as many months he’s had to backtrack on a serious claim once he’s been confronted on it. Tonight it was on negotiating hostages for terrorists. Finally, the bloom may be coming off his 9-9-9 plan. He cannot continue to maintain it is “simple” and “transparent” if he cannot answer questions about its effects without referring people to an analysis on his website. If there is a simple and convincing answer (or even a complex and convincing answer) to the question about its effects on the poor, he has yet to give it.
Tonight goes to Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich.