Just think of me as the 9th Beatle, or as Jonah Goldberg said last night on Twitter, the Kilroy of GOP debates:
The clip comes from Herman Cain’s appearance at TeaCon Midwest two weekends ago in Chicago, when Guy Benson, Katie Pavlich, and I were conducting a panel discussion just prior to Cain’s speech. I bet you’re wishing they’d used the camera angle that showed Katie instead of me, aren’t you? Of course you are. As soon as this clip started playing my Twitter mentions column in Tweetdeck started spinning like a crazed slot machine in Vegas. The Boss Emeritus said it was the best thing on Bloomberg TV all night, but let’s face it — that’s not a tough bar to clear, is it?
Who won last night’s debate? We’ll get as many opinions on that as there are people who managed to find the Bloomberg TV channel on their cable system, so let’s pose the question a little differently: who helped themselves and who didn’t? Let’s just go down the list in alphabetical order:
- Michele Bachmann — Started off with a couple of excellent answers on Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and on health care, but got hyperbolic on the debt ceiling issue by claiming to the “the lone voice” opposing a debt ceiling deal, and then even more so by using a 666 joke from Revelation about Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Overall not a bad effort, but not the kind of gamechanger that Bachmann needs to recapture her earlier magic.
- Herman Cain — Cain had to prove that he could keep up with Mitt Romney and not get flustered while coming under attack. He did a much better job of both than Rick Perry has done in any of these debates, and kept cool under pressure. He continued to use his sense of humor, perhaps less than in previous debates, but his personality and warmth still came through. Cain had a Reagan-like moment in the first half when he demanded and took some time to address a question — and then a Gerald Ford-like moment when he named Alan Greenspan as his model for a Fed chair. Overall, though, he had a good debate, and did nothing to damage his momentum. His rebukes to Ron Paul and to Karen Tumulty for misquotes were firm but not hysterical, and that demonstrated that Cain can control debate currents.
- Newt Gingrich — Another fine debater, Gingrich rarely has a bad night, and he did well again. Gingrich’s problem isn’t debates, it’s baggage, and so far he hasn’t done anything to shed it. He’s aiming at a VP pick, or perhaps a Cabinet post, and he’s doing a fine job in auditioning for either.
- Jon Huntsman — Given his 2% finish in the Bloomberg/WaPo poll, I’m surprised he was even included in this debate, and he may as well have stayed home. He got a lot of attention in the first half and did nothing to distinguish himself from Mitt Romney, and disappeared entirely in the second half.
- Ron Paul — Paul scored big on Cain’s Greenspan comments, and also had some good points about overregulation and how both parties have contributed to it. No real crazy moments, but he did get a hard rebuke from Cain after misquoting him and ended up looking contrite.
- Rick Perry — Perry didn’t make any serious gaffes this time, but he looked tranquilized most of the night, too. When Tumulty brought up Solyndra as an entree to questions about the Texas Enterprise Fund — which have been asked for weeks — Perry once again looked unprepared to answer those questions. He tossed a softball at Mitt Romney on RomneyCare when he had a chance to ask a question, and his follow-up was equally weak. Perry didn’t botch the debate, but he certainly didn’t look engaged, either.
- Mitt Romney — Once again, Romney came prepared, gave crisp answers, and worked the moderators and the other candidates. His defense of TARP won’t win him any new converts, however, and he only tried making the experience argument against Cain once, to little effect. As the frontrunner again, Mitt can’t spend too much time engaging the other candidates; he wants to look presidential, not petty, and Perry’s fall helps Romney avoid those kinds of exchanges. Expect Mitt to hit Cain harder on foreign policy in the Vegas debate next week.
- Rick Santorum — The farther we get into the debates, the more desperate Santorum seems to get. He was the only one on stage to lose his cool, and he continually rushed through his answers in a raised voice, at one point refusing to allow Charlie Rose to move to the next question after his time expired. Santorum made good points and will look good in the transcript, but his delivery looks desperate and angry.
Overall, I’d say that Romney continues to play out the clock by outboxing the rest of the field, and Cain gave an impressive performance. Perry didn’t make an impression one way or the other in this debate, which means he needs to impress viewers in the next debate or watch his campaign spin off into Bachmannville. The rest of the field didn’t do much to distinguish themselves, and they’re becoming increasingly irrelevant.
I liked the stage setting of a table instead of a series of podiums, and I also liked the idea of giving the candidates time to question each other. That round was surprisingly respectful, and it produced some interesting moments — and the puzzling choice of Romney to toss a softball at Bachmann instead of going after Cain. The moderators were only passable, however, and continually insisted on providing a talking-points prologue to each question instead of just asking the question directly. They ended up giving Romney a full quarter of the speaking time, according to Smart Politics, while Perry got 14.1% and Cain got 12.5%. In fact, Romney spoke more in the first hour (7:25) “than Gingrich, Paul, Huntsman, and Santorum recorded for the entire debate.” That’s just a poor job of moderating no matter how good the questions were — and they weren’t that good anyway.
I’d expect polling to show Cain and Romney achieving more separation from the rest of the field by the end of the week, but it’s the all-topics debate in Vegas that will be Cain’s real test, and perhaps an opportunity for Perry to get his act together.