There were two Ricks on debate stage tonight, and both came in loaded up and ready to hunt. Rick Santorum threw a blizzard of punches at Mitt Romney early over his claim that as president, Romney, the author of RomneyCare, would repeal ObamaCare. The punches landed and the damage showed on Romney’s face. Rick Perry came in loaded up to speak aggressively for his energy plan, and spoke with an energy and conviction that has not come through in previous debates. Romney came under the most intense fire he has faced in any of the 2011 debates and while he mostly handled it well, the criticisms of his record are legitimate and will sting. Romney’s red face as he tried to to redirect the examination over to Newt Gingrich revealed that he knew the night wasn’t going well for him.
Herman Cain also faced the toughest questioning of any debate so far, regarding his 9-9-9 tax plan, and handled it mostly with his usual humor and wit. The former talk radio host can engage in an open debate with the best of them, but his lack of depth showed in spots. He didn’t seem to know the details of his 9-9-9 plan early on. Cain did do well when discussing his ideas for reforming health care: No mandates, but focus on market-based reforms like allowing purchase across state lines. Nothing new, but nothing wrong with any of it either.
Perry also hit Romney directly for “hypocrisy” for having hired illegal aliens. Romney laughed and denied, but the story has been out there since 2007 or thereabouts. Romney lost his cool, for the second time. Perry scored another direct hit, and Mitt turned red again. The ice man melted.
Perry also did well on the question of securing the border: It’s about a fence, plus other security measures including technology and boots on the ground. Bachmann got in a jab about the president’s illegal alien relatives who keep popping up in the news, before moving on to declare that she would build a fence along the entire border. There is actually less policy daylight between most of the candidates on the border than the stage arguments suggest, but the arguments drew out some personalities, and it’s hard to see Romney benefiting from the exchange.
Tonight’s was the most lively debate, and does have the potential to change the race a bit. Perry came to fight and from tax policy to spending to funding the UN, showed that his issue knowledge is broad. Romney wasn’t prepared to take hits from so many other candidates. Romney’s packed supporters in the audience and other blogs provided some soundtrack to back their man up but I doubt it did much good. Romney’s cool broke too many times for his own good. His whining about being talked over, when he isn’t shy about interrupting others, was entertaining but revealed a thin skin. Romney probably had his best moment during the religion debate, but that’s such tired ground now and Romney has so overreached on that issue that it’s unlikely to make any difference.
This was Perry’s best night. He took control when he needed to, threw the president’s and his competitors’ words against them at opportune moments, and showed a strong and knowledgeable presence going toe to toe with Romney. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann also had good nights. Gingrich can speak brilliantly on any policy thrown at him. His brief closing statement showed that he is among the adults in the room. Santorum spoke very well on values. Cain and Romney took sustained fire and handled it unevenly. Cain was at his worst on the question of whether he would contemplate releasing terrorists held at Gitmo in exchange for an American hostage. There is simply no way to justify his answer to Wolf Blitzer, earlier today. Ron Paul was, infuriatingly, Ron Paul, capable of saying things at the edge of brilliance but coupling them with statements that make little sense or betray a hole in his moral thinking. While I admire his logical mind, I don’t admire some of the places it takes him.
The clear winner tonight was Rick Perry. He looked like a seasoned leader who has found his voice, at last. Newt Gingrich came in a strong second, Cain and Santorum follow him and Romney follows them. He was strong in spots but had trouble keeping his cool, and had no good answers to explain his own policy history. Passion is one thing; all of the candidates brought that tonight. Edging close to revealing a Hulk moment is something else.
There was something else different about tonight’s debate. In past debates, Romney’s press team has easily outpaced all of the other campaigns combined in the number of press releases they sent out while the debate continued. Not so, tonight. The Perry press team must have rolled over the Romney team 8 to 1 or more. From the top on down, the Perry team is moving with a new energy.