Let's jump right in with my bottom line: Tonight's winners were the second tier candidates, Romney held serve, and Rick Perry had a very rocky evening. I'll start with the candidates whose poll numbers relegate them to less-talked-about status:
Newt Gingrich's poll position was already on the rise after his last few outings, and I suspect his numbers will creep higher once again after tonight. He offered detailed, focused answers on serious questions, and uncorked a few of his patented "I reject the premise of your question" moments. At times, he was genuinely funny -- his line about buying Greek bonds and all going down together was quite good. Despite his many flaws, Newt is deeply informed on the issues, and he knows the games the MSM likes to play. That's what made his Paul Ryan/Meet the Press moment so disappointing.
Herman Cain. God love that man. He's bright, cheerful, conservative, and incredibly likeable. Perhaps the best answer any candidate gave all night was his Obamacare response. It was personal, it was comprehensive, and it was serious. By the way, I wonder if liberals everywhere were confused by all those supposedly racist Republicans loudly applauding him for winning his bout with cancer. A memorable moment.
Rick Santorum had a very good night. He was involved in a number of major exchanges, including one with Rick Perry in which he pointed out a giant flaw in Perry's answer on in-state tuition for illegals. Perry seemed rattled by the somewhat sharp back-and-forth (more on that later). The question from a recently "out" gay soldier serving overseas was a tough one for Santorum, who is an outspoken opponent of gay rights. He explained why he was opposed to repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- but he seemed to wrestle with what to do now that the bell has been rung, so to speak. He settled on reinstating DADT, but not kicking out any active service members who've revealed their homosexuality since that act was legalized. That would be unfair, he said. His answer was more nuanced that many of his angry critics would have expected, I think -- and much more empathetic than the handful of people who booed the solider who asked the question.
Jon Hunstman had a few good zingers, especially at the very end (the Romney/Perry bludgeoning line and his quip about Herman Cain's tie both made me laugh). He also gave pretty solid answers on some significant issues like education and Obamacare. He had a better night than he did in Tampa, I'll put it that way. Also, anyone else catch his clever maneuver working a New Hampshire sheriff into one of his responses? That's the only state he's remotely competing in right now. Eggs, basket, etc.
Michele Bachmann turned in a decent performance and was well-equipped on a number of questions. As I predicted in my debate preview, Chris Wallace did, in fact, ask her about her Gardasil/retardation comments. Considering how bad an episode that was for her, she did a tidy job of damage control, then launched back into an attack on Rick Perry. She also began to make a powerful argument about the viability of a strong conservative nominee in this cycle (essentially, "let's not settle again"), but she stepped on her own line by stating that Barack Obama has the lowest approval ratings of any modern president. As we all remember -- and it pains me to point this out -- that's not exactly true. It's this tendency to gloss over details that gets Bachmann into trouble sometimes.
Gary Johnson is a terrible debater. Let's stipulate that. But he had the line of the night hitting Obama on the stimulus by joking about his neighbor's dogs and "shovel ready" projects. That one unleashed sustained laughter inside the debate hall, and even in the media room. He earned his place on stage in that moment. UPDATE: I'm told Rush used a similar line on his show today. Plagiarism?
Ron Paul, after explaining what he meant when he suggested that the US government might one day use a southern border fence to keep Americans in, declared himself too serious a candidate to engage in some silly Veep-related games as the night wound down. I did like his very simple and straightforward answer about how he'd abide by the tenth amendment. He said he'd veto any piece of legislation that violated it. Period. He only filled up the balance of his time with an elaboration because the moderators seemed caught off guard by the simplicity and brevity of his response.
Now, on to the two leading contenders, according to every single national poll:
Mitt Romney, I suppose, was tonight's default winner. Again. He excels in these settings. He's prepared, disciplined, quick on his feet, and unlike 2008, he seems to be enjoying himself. He's shed some of the awkwardness that plagued him last time around. He's also remarkably opportunistic. When it serves his interests, he attacks Perry from the Left (on Social Security). Alternatively, when it's convenient, he hits Perry from the Right (on immigration). If you're looking for the most polished, put-together, well-spoken, "electable" guy, Romney's your man. He's proven that over and over in these debates. But what does he really believe? When he's confronted with tough questions about his record, Romney has an incredible ability to either anticipate and recite a convincing-sounding rebuttal, or to ignore the tough part of the question altogether while giving a really smooth answer on his own turf. Is that good politics? It sure is.
Again, though, he's been on almost every side of every major issue over the last 15 years. Rick Perry tried to hit him on that, and whiffed (more on that later). It is stunning to me how Romney has emerged from every single debate virtually unscathed -- even when he was the frontrunner. How has there not been one single prolonged, Perry-style pile-on about, say, Romneycare? Mitt has some clever talkers prepared to deflect these criticisms, but he's never forced to move beyond his somewhat superficial, sometimes misleading, bullet points. Based on yet another strong performance, it wouldn't surprise me if Romney pulls even with Perry in the next round of polling.
Rick Perry repeated some of his previous mistakes, and maybe even regressed tonight. His best answers are in his wheelhouse: Jobs and Texas. Good first answer on that. His Gardasil "lobbied by a 31-year-old woman" answer was rehearsed, but effective. The first part of his immigration answer -- the bit about border security -- was very good. Even if you disagree with Perry's position, as many primary voters do, he at least defended it well...at first. The problems start when he ventures off the prepared script. There were a number of cringe-worthy moments tonight, most of which (again!) happened in the second half of the debate. I heard from a well-informed source at Fox that Perry's team was pushing for a shorter debate, and it's obvious why. He fades late. He's done it every single time. His foreign policy was (again!) very unfocused. I feel like I've written that exact sentence after every debate in which Perry's participated. When he tried to hammer Romney on his serial flip-flopping (someone has to), he looked like a wind-up toy that had just run out of steam. That was a brutal, brutal moment. He couldn't string words, let alone sentences together. Then, on the last serious question of the night, he said something that sounded a lot like this. Yikes.
When Rick Santorum came after him on in-state tuition for illegals, Perry looked like he'd never considered Santorum's point: That allowing illegals to attend college is different than subsidizing them. To some extent, it really seems like Perry is still running for Governor of Texas, which he's really, really good at. Romney recognizes the many vulnerabilities in his record as Governor of Massachusetts, and is prepared with nicely packaged answers to rebut and defend. Perry, at this point, isn't even close. As attendees shuffled out of the auditorium after the debate, one man remarked to those around him, "Boy, Perry really dropped the ball tonight." That observation was met with disappointed murmurs of agreement. As I said in my preview, a lot of folks want to rally around Perry. So far, he's making it harder to do so than many people had initially imagined.
So there you have it. As usual, feel free to tell me how brilliant or idiotic I am in the comments. Am I being too hard on Perry? Is anyone else starting to sense the "Teflon Mitt" experience isn't an anomaly? Did any of the Tier II candidates perform well enough to have "broken through," as they say?
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