Gov. Rick Perry came into tonight’s debate the leader and I think he leaves it in that position. Mitt Romney positioned himself as the non-Tea flavored alternative to the frontrunner, but the fact is that the energy in the GOP now is almost entirely with the Tea Party and the conservative base. Romney can win if Perry is discredited or implodes, but neither happened tonight. Instead America saw a GOP frontrunner who is willing to take the risk of telling hard truths about difficult issues. Americans also saw in Perry a leader who recognizes past policies that didn’t work, and does not double down on them. I think Americans saw in Rick Perry a plausible replacement for Barack Obama. The Texas governor’s stature grew and I expect polls to show that he is solidifying his lead in the GOP primary and is moving to a lead nationally over the president.
The country was served well in this debate. It was substantive and interesting despite the occasional interjections of host Brian Williams. Scoring it, Perry and Romney essentially tied on substance and presentation. Both stood apart from the rest of the candidates. Newt Gingrich was effectively aggressive, especially when he noted that the GOP really is a team focused on defeating President Obama and rolling back his destructive agenda. Bachmann’s star faded a bit from her earlier, more powerful debate performances. Cain, Huntsman and Santorum all acquitted themselves credibly and all showed that they belonged on the stage. Ron Paul’s quirky performance continues to be a taste that I have not acquired.
The big loser tonight is Barack Obama. By comparison to all but one of the candidates, the president comes off poorly. He delivers a speech before tomorrow night’s NFL kickoff that will not be as substantive or as interesting as this debate. Despite the atmosphere of a joint session of Congress he will seem small because his ideas are small and he is a proven failure in his office. I doubt that Americans will have any qualms replacing him next year with a solid, credible Republican, and there were many of those engaged in this debate tonight.