This was supposed to be the first debate that (finally!) had real drama. Would Rick Perry talk smack? Would Herman Cain hold up? Would Mitt Romney slip into that comfortable shoe of frontrunnerdom?
Well, they were all pretty terrible. But, it must be said, by degree. Romney was unbad enough to stay ahead. Especially on the heels of his endorsement today from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Perry didn’t lay a glove on Romney during the question period, and Romney proved reasonably deft at swatting away the “sellout” problems, like the Massachusetts health-care plan. He wasn’t good, but he wasn’t bad enough to lose ground.
Cain has become a better debater. He has mastered that first-level trick of sounding like he knows what he’s talking about. He hasn’t mastered the second-level art of actually knowing what he’s talking about, but, then, few of them do. So Cain acquitted himself perfectly well tonight—people who showed up cheering for him will sleep well. But starting Wednesday, questions about 9-9-9 will arise. The key thing for Cain is whether he’s ready for this new intensity of attention, which will commence immediately.
Perry? He choked badly on an early big moment when Charlie Rose asked him what his plan was. He stumbled his way into some boilerplate about energy, but he spoke unconfidently and was looking at Charlie as a child looks at his teacher while trying to remember that middle string of the alphabet. I still count Perry in, though. This has to come down to Romney vs. X, and I still don’t think X will be Cain. But Perry is a pretty lowercase X just now.
Michele Bachmann is gone, poor gal. Newt Gingrich is just being vain. Ron Paul wastes everyone’s time, starting with his. Rick Santorum might yet be a dark horse, but his idea of how to revive manufacturing, to which he obligatorily nodded by dint of geographic destiny, is patently crazy. And anyway these primary voters don’t care about reviving manufacturing. That Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and even Perry got sidetracked in closing comments to talk about jobs for what their audience would call society’s losers showed just how ill prepared each is for prime time.