Tuesday night’s debate was the last one until mid-November, and that’s a good thing. After last night, the candidates may well need a cooling-off period from one another.
Reagan’s 11th Commandment — never speak ill of a fellow Republican — was broken early and often. The candidates went after Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax-reform plan right off the bat, and it was at best a draw for the Georgian. He really does receive some unfair attacks when his reform plans are conflated with state taxes: His answer that the state taxes (particularly sales taxes) will exist regardless is true, and no one would argue that leaving income taxes higher than 9 percent is somehow unfair for those states that have income taxes.
On the other hand, his defense against charges that the plan is regressive isn’t working. He can’t simply say “not true” about the analyses that conclude it would lead to higher taxes for lower- and middle-income families, and expect people to believe him. More broadly, he struggled yet again with questions about foreign policy, seeming to say he wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists — except in those cases when he would. He has a month to bone up on such questions before the next debate, which will be focused on foreign policy.
Mitt Romney took his turn in the dunk tank next, and it was his own fault: He answered a question about jobs and the economy by mentioning his pledge to repeal Obamacare. Rick Santorum brought up Romneycare and said the former Massachusetts governor had no credibility on the issue, and the splashing began. It was the first time during these debates that Romney has seemed flustered — although that was nothing compared to what came next, when Rick Perry accused him of having employed illegal immigrants. Perry and Romney spent what must have been nearly a minute trying to shout down each other.
Perry was roundly booed by the crowd, which on several occasions seemed to be quite pro-Romney, but he made his most respectable showing in any of the debates so far. He didn’t appear tired and wasn’t tongue-tied. He won’t regain all the ground he’s lost in the past month, but his slide should halt for a while.
On the flip side, Cain’s rise may plateau for at least a few weeks. It wasn’t a bad showing by him, but nor was it as good as the last couple of debates,after which he began climbing quickly in the polls. He has to take his 9-9-9 explanation to another level, and he has to prove he can speak authoritatively about topics other than taxes, jobs and the economy. Given his penchant for making controversial statements, any national headlines he makes between now and the next debate could just as easily be negative as positive.
If Cain were to stumble, the candidate best positioned to take advantage after Tuesday night might be Newt Gingrich. The former speaker seemed to be hitting cleanup all night, taking his turn after a few other candidates had gotten to swing. He didn’t miss much, if at all. And he only took a couple of swipes at the moderator(s) and media in general, fewer than usual.
After months of troubles, there is a chance that Gingrich could allow the other candidates to bloody each other and then be the kind of elder party statesman who waltzes in and unites the sparring factions. It’s still a very slim chance, but that’s more than he had until recently.
Santorum negated his often good statements by, just as often, coming across as petty.
Ron Paul gave the kind of answers we’ve come to expect from him, and they will continue to earn him a certain amount of support, but he is not going to be the nominee (although his son, Rand, may stand a decent chance one day due in large part to the elder Paul’s efforts).
Michele Bachmann made a blatant attempt to pull female voters with an answer about mothers and foreclosed homes, and she generally brought the conversation back to President Obama — in a way that made me think she is seriously angling to be the running mate for the eventual nominee. Most memorably, she let Romney off the hook about Obamacare by arguing that the federal health reform is destined to be thrown out either as a whole or one piece at a time. Romney/Bachmann 2012? (Only if Marco Rubio turns it down.)
The next month will be a critical time. Candidates who are short on money will find out whether they can squeeze enough cash out of their supporters to make it to 2012. They will find out whether their messages are resonating in the early primary and caucus states, or whether they’re too far back too late in the game to make a surge. They will face ever greater scrutiny of the plans they lay out (Perry said Tuesday that he’ll have a new economic plan by week’s end).
The race is about to tighten in a meaningful way.
– By Kyle Wingfield