Michele Bachmann had a golden opportunity to swing away at Monday night's CNN debate—and she whiffed.
She took the very first question from Wolf Blitzer and defended the government's "promise" to provide Social Security—but made no mention of Rick Perry having slammed the popular program. That opened the door for Perry and Mitt Romney to go toe-to-toe over the issue—and, for the second straight week, turned a GOP presidential debate into a two-man show.
It was a long time before Bachmann got another shot, and that, in a nutshell, is why the Texas governor has stolen her thunder, even before a favorable crowd—a Tea Party audience in Orlando.
With Bachmann hanging back, Romney seized control of the tempo in what may have been his strongest performance so far. He seemed at ease taking the fight to Perry and got the better of their heated exchanges. The former Massachusetts governor was clearly trying to position himself as the reassuring grownup on stage and Perry as the fearmonger.
Let's unpack their verbal clash and see what it tells us about each man and his strategy.
Perry tried to clean up his mess from last week's MSNBC debate, when he attacked Social Security as a Ponzi scheme without suggesting how he might fix it. This time he offered those near retirement age a "slam-dunk guarantee" they'd get their benefits before hailing his own "courage" in criticizing the ailing system.
Romney didn't miss a beat, calling Perry's Ponzi language "over the top" and "frightful" before delivering his strongest punch: that the Texan had called Social Security unconstitutional and "not something the federal government ought to be involved in."
Perry tried in vain to paint Romney as pro-New Deal, saying he didn't agree that the feds "made all the right decisions" in the 1930s and '40s. Not very convincing to cast Mitt as FDR Lite.
And when Perry said we should have a "thoughtful conversation" about the retirement program "rather than trying to scare seniors like you and others are doing," Romney, who had been trying to interrupt, said: "Governor, the term 'Ponzi scheme' is what scared seniors."
Romney played deft defense when Perry, in a pre-scripted move, said his rival had called Social Security "criminal" in his own policy book. Romney calmly corrected him, saying he had called it criminal for Congress to take money out of the Social Security trust fund.
Romney's feisty approach may not dent Perry's standing in the polls, but he showed himself to be a fighter—and that could help him among Republicans who view him as a wealthy and aloof businessman.
Despite some tough pre-game talk from Bachmann's advisers, she turned down another prime opportunity—twice—to take on Perry. The congresswoman refused to criticize him for accusing Ben Bernanke of near-treason for his monetary policy, saying only that she wouldn't reappoint him. Wolf Blitzer tried again, and she declined to challenge Perry's words.
Bachmann came alive only in the second hour in what proved to be the evening's worst moment for Perry. The issue was Perry's state program to inoculate school-age girls against cervical cancer, which he has admitted was a partial mistake.
Suddenly Bachmann's passion broke through, saying that "innocent little 12-year-old girls" being "forced to have government injections" was "flat-out wrong." And when Perry gamely insisted that parents could opt out of the program, she ratched things up, saying his former chief of staff had lobbied for the drug company involved. Perry said the company, Merck, had made a $5,000 donation, and "if you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
With Bachmann hanging back, Romney seized control of the tempo in what may have been his strongest performance so far.
It wasn't exactly "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
But it's hard to see the issue doing lasting damage to Perry. The details are complicated, and he was, after all, trying to combat cancer.
Ron Paul again got under Perry's skin, challenging the governor's spiel about lowering taxes by saying his own taxes had gone up in Texas.
And Romney again played defense on his Massachusetts health care plan, saying Perry shouldn't assume President Obama is telling the truth when he says he modeled his health law on Mitt's.
Much of the rest of the debate provided a sense of deja vu. Jon Huntsman seemed much less aggressive--until the wildly uncharacteristic moment when he accused Rick Perry of treason. For Perry to say we can't control the Mexican border, he declared, is "pretty much a treasonous comment." Now Perry isn't the only candidate to throw the T-word around.
One surprise was how short and tepid the Tea Party members' questions were. I'm sorry, but asking how would you "get the economy moving forward" or "remove the illegal immigrants from our country" is just an invitation for candidates to recite their stump speeches. Journalists ask specific questions for a reason: to try to pin down the politicians.
In the end, the Tampa debate didn't move the ball much. Perry and Romney are still slugging it out as the most likely nominees. But Romney served notice that he is going to fight like hell, and perhaps more important, this sometimes-awkward candidate seemed comfortable doing so.