Mitt's Best Night

Romney was confident and smooth, running rings around Perry and the other participants. But don’t count Perry out. He’ll fight hard, says Paul Begala.

09.08.11 3:15 AM ET

As George W. Bush might say, I may have misunderestimated Mitt Romney. 
The often awkward and aloof campaigner was confident and smooth. This was his best debate performance of the 2012 campaign.

Rick Perry called himself the piñata at the party, but a piñata is full of candy—it has more substance then Perry. He seemed surprised that the standard applause lines that worked so well at Tea Party rallies fell somewhat flat at the debate. He was incoherent on health care: railing against Romney's mandate but tripping over his own mandate requiring 12-year-old girls to receive the HPV vaccine. When Romney scolded him for savaging Social Security, he stumbled badly, jabbering incoherently about some distinction between "reasons" and "results." Huh?

Still, I don't count Perry out. This is Romney's umpteenth national debate and Perry's first. He is as fierce and competitive a campaigner as there is. Watch for him to slam Romney, perhaps fairly, perhaps dishonestly—but hard.

Newt Gingrich was beneath even his own demagogic standards, berating moderator John Harris like he was a clerk who had shown him a substandard diamond.

Michele Bachmann, whose star shone so brightly in earlier debates, seemed to fade into the background.