Perry: Even as the front-runner Gov. Rick Perry has the easiest task tonight. He doesn't have to score major debating points; he doesn't have to know anyone out of the ring; he doesn't have to do anything but show steady improvement. When Romney comes after him on his Social Security stance ("it's a Ponzi scheme") he needs to stand his ground and calmly explain that young workers don't believe they will see a dime of their Social Security payments upon retirement.
Romney: Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign has to be shocked at the speed and power of the Perry operation. Romney's folks pointed to the endorsement of Tim Pawlenty earlier today. I pointed out (and I like Romney) that Pawlenty lost to Bachmann and the CNN poll which was released at the crack 'o dawn this morning showed Bachmann polling just behind Gingrich. The Pawlenty endorsement might be nice to have, but it is far from a tipping point.
Romney has to continue his drive to prove - not to Republican primary voters, but to Independents - that Perry is dangerous and cannot be trusted with the Presidency.
Santorum: Any discussion of each of these debates starts with the question: Is this Sen. Rick Santorum's last appearance? He will, again, point out his Congressional experience but he will have to come up with something special tonight to join the leaders in this campaign.
General: Everyone seemed to be in mid-season form. For most of the candidates this was the fourth debate and they've become more comfortable with the format - and Wolf Blitzer did a good job letting them have their say.
In the first debate, also sponsored by CNN, the producers thought having each candidate speak for seven seconds (or so) was going to make for a high-energy debate. In the end moderator John King's continuing attempts to interrupt was distracting and the debate was almost impossible to watch.
Newt was the big winner. Blitzer let him speak and no one is better at reducing complex issues to understandable terms than Gingrich. He was allowed into the conversation on a regular basis and used his time wisely and well. He will raise a lot of money from this appearance.
Perry more than held his own on the Social Security issue (which was, I'm sure by design, the first question). Going toe to toe with Romney ("you wrote in your book …" Oh, yeah? Well, "You wrote in your book …") was helpful to both men because it separated them from the rest of the field and showed they had both done their homework. If Perry had shown weakness at the top of the debate, he would have been on defense the whole time. He didn't and he wasn't
Romney's litany of the seven pillars of economic growth (with apologies to T. E. Lawrence) was very impressive but when he said Texas' economic position was strong because Perry had "been dealt four aces" it drew groans from the crowd. Nevertheless, his constant reminder that he has both built companies and taken ailing companies and made them profitable is a strong message.
Bachmann was better - far better - than she was in the California debate but her entire story is what she's been involved with in Congress. Despite the hall being filled with Tea Party members who cheered her answers, it is a short story, when the nation seems to be looking for a sweeping novel.
Paul, as I suspected, was focused on taking on Perry but Perry appeared to considered Paul an irritating nuisance, not a troubling opponent. As the debate wore on, Paul seemed to go farther and farther off the Cliff of Logic.
Huntsman did build on his appearance at the Reagan Library but then he made that "treasonous" crack at Perry. Say goodnight, Jon.
Cain didn't move the ball. He got his 9-9-9 tax policy in, but still falls back on platitudes when the others are quoting specifics.
Santorum nice guy. Thanks for playing.