We witnessed a two of important developments at tonight's debate at Oakland University in Michigan. (1) The Republican candidates had each other's backs, refused to take the moderators' intra-party attack bait, and engaged in a substantive, serious debate. (2) A former frontrunner's campaign may have crossed the rubicon into political death valley. Here are my quick takes on each competitor's performance:
Bachmann - Doesn't seem like a relevant player on stage anymore, and hasn't for some time. Her opening answer was about as comprehensive and general as they come (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, oil drilling, border fence), which set the stage for her entire evening. I understand where her heart is on opposing the payroll tax cut extension and her concerns about the 53%-47% income tax tipping point, but it's really tough messaging to talk about raising taxes on the poor in this economy. Bachmann offered a few helpful statistics along the way (on China's malfeasances, for instance), and resumed her role of turning almost every opportunity to rip a fellow Republican into an anti-Obama attack. It's as if she knows deep down that she won't win the nomination, but wants to help take President Obama down while she still has the platform to lend her voice to that effort. Applause for that.
Cain - The audience hated the inevitable questions about the sexual harassment allegations -- booing lustily when the issue was raised. Cain offered a defense, reminded viewers that the charges remain unproven, then insisted that the discussion return to the economy. Big cheers, strong moment. On policy, though, he continues to seem frightfully under-informed on some issues. He also has a tendency to reference 9-9-9 in virtually every answer. This was most apparent when he (at first) dodged a question on Fannie and Freddie by talking up his tax plan; the moderators finally pinned him down into offering something resembling a responsive answer. Speaking of 9-9-9, one of his best lines of the night came in response to a familiar criticism of his plan: That 9-9-9 could become 19-19-19 with the introduction of new federal tax streams. His retort was a twist on an old National Rifle Association (yes, that NRA) bromide, "Tax codes don't raise taxes, politicians raise taxes." At one point, Cain referred to Former Speaker Pelosi as "Princess Nancy," which got a laugh, but was un-presidential. He realized it, and retracted the comment in the spin room, post-debate.
Gingrich - The guy is about as smart as they come. As usual, Newt relished his role of rejecting the premises of questions he disdained, while doing a thorough job of answering others. Ironically, after taking Maria Bartiromo to task for asking her silly "30 seconds...healthcare...go!" query by protesting that it was impossible to address such a weighty issue within such a miniscule time box, he ended up giving a damn good 30-second answer anyway. His response on the distortionary effects of government-run student loan subsidies was also brilliantly executed. If the former Speaker continues his rise in the polls, I suspect we'll hear more about his lucrative advisory position with Freddie Mac in the years leading up to the financial meltdown. He claims he was warning the GSE of choppy seas ahead, and was not lobbying against tighter regulations (which Republicans were actually pushing in the mid 2000's). Oppo-researchers might want to take a peek at Newt's story.
Huntsman - The former Utah Governor looked and sounded physically ill tonight, so maybe we should cut him some slack. A few of his answers were decent, but far too many were grating and cloying. The most telling moment of the night for Huntsman came when he essentially accused Mitt Romney of pandering on Chinese trade and currency issues. When a follow-up asked him point-blank if Romney was pandering, he stuttered and sputtered into a half-yes. If Huntsman wants to score points on Romney, that's not the way to get the job done. Also, the whining about not getting enough face time is particularly annoying when you don't do much with the time you are allotted.
Paul - Say what you will about Ron Paul -- he is dogmatic, consistent, and unafraid. A number of his early answers were very crisp, particularly his paean to spending cuts. On the tax code: "That's the consequence. That's the symptom. The disease is spending." Yessir. Whether one embraces his draconian proposed cuts is a separate matter; he's at least got his eye on the right ball.
Perry - Oh boy. I'm afraid we may have seen the final demise of the Perry presidential campaign tonight. Let me stipulate this: As someone who does live television with some regularity, it is hard, and it can be quite nerve-wracking. Blanking on a thought is human. It happens. The problem with Perry's brain deep-freeze moment was that it represented a catastrophic microcosm of every unflattering narrative about him -- all in one, painful, awful, prolonged rhetorical car-wreck. As soon as it happened, I thought, "he's done." Not because he forgot his third point on departments he'd cut, but because he couldn't recover or finesse his way through the rough patch. It dragged on and on, with other candidates pitching in out of sympathy, trying to rescue him. It was a thoroughly pitiable moment, which is not good for any candidate, especially one who's seen as a bad debater and who is running out of time for a reboot. It may not be fair, but it was a devastatingly memorable moment. An afterthought: "The" moment came at the tail end of an excellent, on-point answer about fueling job creation, in which he refused to go negative on Romney, even though he was nudged to do so. All that was erased in an instant. Also, he was more or less invisible throughout the rest of the evening. (UPDATE -- Oof.)
Romney - A very, very strong night for Mitt Romney, with one notable exception. I realize that I'll be accused, as always, of being "in the tank" for Romney after giving him high post-debate marks, but even rabid anti-Romneyites have to admit that his answers were poised and thorough. He was asked some really tough (deserved) questions about his earned reputation of being a flip-flopper, and he handled them graciously and fairly powerfully. I wasn't convinced -- I know too much about his record -- but average voters probably found his responses compelling. He also gave a good, detailed answer on the auto bailouts and a great answer on the government-caused housing bust. His lone stumble, in my mind, was when he seemed caught off-guard by a Romneycare question. He froze for a moment and muttered a poor explanation of Massachusetts' individual mandate before clumsily changing the subject to Medicaid. That may seem like a small quibble, but it was striking to see him on his heels on a topic he's prepared for and handled well, frustratingly so, on many occasions.
Santorum - The former Senator was a bit braggy tonight, which is rarely appealing. He didn't seem to have one of his "on" nights, for whatever reason. He wasn't bad, per se, but for someone who hasn't broken through with the not-Mitt crowd, I doubt this showing will change the game for him in any measurable way. That could very well change on November 12th and 22nd when the topic shifts to foreign policy. He has real foreign policy chops, and has shown a willingness to openly clash with Ron Paul over his dangerous ideas on the subject.
Recapping: Romney and Gingrich were your winners. The loser, I'm sorry to say, was Rick Perry. Everyone else treaded water, with a few bright spots here and there. Overall, (Elisabeth's valid critiques notwithstanding) I thought CNBC did a decent job, asking some substantive questions on issues we haven't heard much about (housing, student loans). That said, I really, really could have done without Jim Cramer. When will someone invent an individual mute button?
Agree? Disagree? Think I'm a fool? Have at it in the comments section...