As Republicans cast about for a savior, each of the early debates has focused on the performance of a particular candidate: How would Mitt Romney handle getting dogpiled? Could Michele Bachmann come across as non-flaky? Would Rootin’ Tootin’ Rick Perry shoot himself in the foot?
Tonight was Herman Cain’s night in the hot seat, as the dozen or so voters actually paying attention to the race at this point tuned in to see if the saucy pizza magnate would capitalize on his stunning poll surge.
One word: dud
Who knows what happened? Maybe the guy stayed up too late prepping. Maybe he wasn’t comfortable wading into the nitty-gritty of economic policy. Or maybe he was simply paralyzed by the weight of his campaign’s newfound feasibility.
Whatever the case, the Herminator barely rose above the status of wallflower at this party, and when he did it was in trying to defend himself rather than advancing his positions. Cain’s answers were vague and platitudinous, and, despite being pitched the opening question, he captured less air time than most of his colleagues. Even when the moderators opened the floor for him to defend his 9-9-9 tax plan, Cain stumbled into the weeds of swapping payroll taxes for sales taxes and of noting the difference in how new goods vs. used goods are taxed.
By contrast, the rest of the field was notably energized. Jon Huntsman was trying out his Shecky Green routine, cracking wicked jokes left and right. (Sorry about that whole Mormonism-is-a-cult fracas, Governor Perry!) Bachmann, although disturbingly frail-looking in her bridal-white suit, launched several solid attacks. (My favorite: Her quip about flipping Cain’s “9-9-9” upside down and observing that “the devil is in the details.”) Griping about the U.S. financial system is so snugly in Ron Paul’s wheelhouse that his fellow candidates burst into laughter damn near every time he was served up a question. Rick Santorum got in a good thwack or two, asking the New Hampshire audience whether it would choke down the 9 percent sales tax baked into Cain’s 9-9-9. Newt Gingrich was totally en fuego, at last finding that sweet spot where he presented himself as fiery but not petulant. Even Romney came down from his frontrunner throne to mix it up: talking trade and taxes, he managed to look genuinely passionate now and again.
Altogether, a super fun time—but not one that Cain contributed much to, much less dominated. Not a lethal showing, but definitely a letdown.
Could it be time for Newt’s 15 minutes center stage?