Some initial reactions to tonight's MSNBC/Politico Republican debate, which I thought was rather informative -- despite the moderators' irritatingly tendentious questions:
Perry – Standing squarely in the hot glare of the spotlight, Rick Perry turned in an uneven, but ultimately acceptable, performance. He totally ignored my pre-debate advice and enthusiastically jumped into the attack fray with jabs at opponents and critics, including Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Karl Rove. His strongest answers came on jobs, the economy, and capital punishment. He stumbled a bit on foreign policy, and seemed to labor through several other responses (global warming and education spring to mind). When confronted with several loaded and inaccurate characterizations of his record in Texas from NBC anchor Brian Williams, I was slightly surprised that he wasn't equipped with more focused defenses and rebuttals. While I admire his courage in telling the truth on Social Security, Perry is going to need to refine his answer and his talking points on this delicate topic. Sadly, truth-telling on entitlements is an open invitation for demagoguery in modern American politics, and without more detailed, persuasive answers, Mitt Romney – and Barack Obama, for that matter – will eat his lunch. Overall, not a bad opening act for Perry, but he will need to improve. Time is on his side in that regard. He was certainly asked more than his fair share of questions tonight, but that was to be expected. At times, the forum felt like it was a Perry/Romney debate, with a few supporting characters sprinkled in for color.
Romney – Let’s face it: The man is a very smooth debater. Mitt Romney is almost always unflappably on message, prepared, concise, and able to seamlessly parlay most questions into an attack on Barack Obama. Unlike some of his opponents, Romney almost seems eager to respond to criticisms of his record with wonkish, refined replies. Sometimes he’s defending the indefensible (Romneycare), but he sounds good doing it. From a conservative policy standpoint, Romney’s record doesn’t hold a candle to Perry’s -- but his rhetorical skills, preparation, and poise make him a force to be reckoned with in these settings. I expect Romney’s spirited attack on Perry over Social Security to be a recurring theme of the primary season. Hopefully, this reality will force Perry to step up his game and defend his (correct) position more effectively. During the nearly two-hour debate, I received roughly half-a-dozen emails from the Romney camp. All of them were attacks and fact-checks on Rick Perry, including a somewhat hysterical note entitled, “PERRY DOES NOT BELIEVE SOCIAL SECURITY SHOULD EXIST.” This is a clear distortion of Perry’s position, and represents the sort of demagoguery that is disappointing coming from a Republican. Conservatives should not attack each other for conveying the difficult truth about our broken entitlements system.
Bachmann – Slipping in the polls, Michele Bachmann needed to have a big night. She didn’t. Her performance wasn’t especially memorable, which is a problem for a candidate seeking to re-establish her footing as a top-tier candidate. She gave a fairly good response on the debt deal and tax increases question, and launched some effective broadsides against Obamacare, but never seemed to find her groove. None of her answers struck me as especially damaging – in fact, she defended her foolish two-dollar gas promise as well as she possibly could have – but she failed to reverse her downward trend. Iowa could be her Waterloo, so to speak.
Paul – As I anticipated, Ron Paul offered some aid and comfort to the rest of the field by going after Rick Perry’s record in Texas. His shot about Perry’s letter to Hillary in “support” of Hillarycare in the 1990s was even more disingenuous than his campaign’s ad hitting Perry over endorsing Al Gore in the 1980s. Ron Paul has devoted supporters and makes sense on some issues, but he occasionally reminds us of why he isn’t a serious candidate. Tonight’s crazy-town moment came during an answer on immigration, when he ominously warned that a southern border fence might someday be used by a tyrannical US government to keep its subjects penned up inside the country. Yikes.
Huntsman – For the life of me, I cannot fathom why Jon Huntsman didn’t beat the drum about the economic plan he released last week at every opportunity. Because the news cycle got loud last week, his proposals were largely lost in the shuffle -- but not before the Wall Street Journal lauded them as the most impressive and growth-oriented of any current GOP candidate. Huntsman had a few solid answers, but whiffed on his best chance to really impress Republican primary voters by touting his conservative vision for growing the US economy. His preachy lecturing on climate change and immigration was also quite grating – and I say that as someone who's sympathetic to his positions on both issues to some degree. Not a good sign.
Cain – Tonight marked a bit of a comeback for Herman Cain. I don’t think it was nearly enough to change his status in the race in any meaningful sense, but he added a fair amount to the discussion. He was largely ignored by the moderators, which actually may have helped him. Getting short-shrift on prepared questions motivated him to pipe up when he had something to say. His answer on the private sector and job creation was so good that even Mitt Romney literally applauded it from across the stage.
Gingrich – Newt appears to have found his niche: Attacking questioners and their questions. To some extent, it’s a good strategy. The MSM asks lots of flawed questions with bogus premises. Newt is making it a point to call them out on each one. He also adopted the role of the great GOP uniter, putting the media on notice that he wouldn't let them goad Republicans into attacking each other as a means of shielding the real problem, Barack Obama, from due scrutiny and criticism. Gingrich conducted himself as the ultimate team player, perhaps indicating that he's finally internalized the lesson of his unforgivable swipe at Paul Ryan’s budget on Meet the Press. I wonder if Newt realizes he will never be the GOP's nominee, and is beginning the transition back to the role of TV pundit, Republican Party man, and prominent Obama critic. That role suits him well.
Santorum – This may sound flippant, but I cannot recall one significant answer Rick Santorum gave tonight. In Ames, he warmed to the task of rebuking Ron Paul’s non-interventionist/isolationist foreign policy posture, and was an unapologetic defender of the role of morality and God in politics. Tonight, he didn’t break through on any issue.
NBC/Politico – Brian Williams, who I generally regard as a good, fair-minded guy, asked some awful questions tonight. He painted a cartoonishly dismal portrait of Texas’ education, jobs, and healthcare conditions, which begged the question of why Texas has experienced a massive influx of individuals and companies under Rick Perry's leadership. The root assumption behind many of Williams' questions to Rick Perry seemed to be, “how can you possibly defend the hellish conditions in your God-forsaken state, Governor?” For a solid destruction of several of Williams' poorly-researched and incomplete assumptions, click HERE. Politico’s John Harris also played some gotcha games on mandates and climate change. (Which climate scientists inform your thinking, John?) I also found NBC’s treatment of the Telemundo correspondent to be borderline demeaning. They trotted out Jose Diaz-Balart to ask a series of questions solely about immigration, then thanked him for completing his narrow task, and shooed him away before returning to the non-identity-politics questions. How parochial. Finally, MSNBC’s post-debate “analysis” program quickly descended into self-parody. Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton, Larry O’Donnell, and Robert Gibbs led the discussion about a Republican debate. Need I say more?
So, who won? In the sense that tonight's proceedings did nothing to derail the conventional wisdom that the primary battle is on track to crystallize into a two-man jujutsu match between Perry and Romney, those two candidates "won." Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich had above average nights, as did Jon Huntsman, but none of them even came close to altering the dynamics of the race. I think that Perry survived the night and maintains his grasp on the top spot, but he has much room for improvement. Disagree with my analysis? Have a different perspective on Perry's big debut? Have at it in the comments section...
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography