Both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry had poor debate performances last night, as I wrote in my earlier post. The rest of the field did reasonably well, even apart from comparing them to the two frontrunners who seemed more interested in attacking each other than giving answers to the questions. Michele Bachmann improved but lost any gains when she attempted to say that she hadn’t claimed that HPV causes mental retardation, but that she just regurgitated the claim repeatedly on national television because someone told her it did. Er … okay.  Newt Gingrich dialed down the media hate but also faded into the scenery a bit.  Gary Johnson had one good line in his first debate, which he apparently cribbed from Rush Limbaugh.

The only two to gain real notice, however, were Rick Santorum and Herman Cain.  Santorum mixed it up well with Rick Perry on border and later on foreign policy.  On the former, Santorum came across a bit weak; visiting a California border station once several years ago is not the same thing as governing a state for eleven years with a border of 1200 miles, and Santorum made it a bit worse by trying to continually interrupt Perry’s rebuttal, to the point where Chris Wallace had to tell him in effect to pipe down and wait for a question.

Santorum did much better on the question of Pakistan and rogue nukes if the Taliban scored a coup there, but he offered essentially the same answer as Perry, only coherently.  No responsible candidate would say what Fox apparently wanted to hear, which is that we’d invade Pakistan to grab the nukes if the Islamists took over the country, so both talked about avoiding that consequence in the first place by building relationships.  Perry talked about building relationships with India, however, which is at best a non-sequitur for the hypothetical given; a friendship with India won’t help in the case of a coup, and our relationship-building with India has to be handled subtly so as not to encourage the Islamists in Pakistan.  Santorum got this right by emphasizing that the relationships that matter in the hypothetical are with Pakistanis, not the Indians.

Cain, however, delivered the answer of the night on an issue about which voters care more, and the answer was devastating mainly because of its personal nature:

This is the best argument against ObamaCare and government encroachment in health care.  The more government becomes part of the process, the more control bureaucrats gain and patients lose.  If anyone doubts that, just look across the border to Canada and see how much personal choice patients have in treatments and access.  More than that, Cain’s answer applies to overregulation in general, and it serves as a pretty good explanation for the economic stagnation we are currently enduring.  The more capital and control we assign to government rather than letting stakeholders use their own capital, the less economic innovation and flexibility we have, which means less growth and fewer jobs.

It didn’t hurt that this answer came late in the debate, either.  People might give Santorum the edge in the debate outcome, but this is the moment people will be discussing around the water cooler.