Michelle Malkin tweeted it best: "It's the Charlie Rose/Jon Huntsman comedy show. UGH." In a debate that many were saying was do or die for Rick Perry's candidacy, Jon Huntsman got more TV time. You can thank a terribly organized debate and Rick Perry for that. While Newt Gingrich perfected the polite interruption and Rick Santorum stopped Bloomberg from going to commercial so he could get his views heard, Rick Perry seemed happy to let the debate pass him by without saying much at all.
While Perry was virtually non-existent in the debate, his recent hit ad on Romney was game changingly delicious, showing just how vulnerable the former Massachusetts Governor is. Perry continues to flag in debates, but let’s be honest…if the best debater became President, George W. would have been riding his mountain bike in Crawford for the last 10 years.
Based on Perry's past debate performances being silent might have been his best tactic, but it did nothing to stop the narrative that his campaign is deflating. The strategy may have yielded some positive results, though, as all of Romney's talk time included an answer on TARP that is not going to sell well with conservatives. TARP being one of the root causes of the Tea Party, it's not something any candidate wants to be tied to, let alone defending in any form.
While Mitt Romney's answer on his past support for TARP will not be helpful to him, overall he displayed again that his debate skills are unparalleled on the stage. He continually rejected the premise of the moderator's questions, asked himself the rhetorical question he wanted to answer and had some solid canned responses to expected attacks. While not tactics that win collegiate debates, they are the golden rules of winning political debates.
Also helpful to Romney was the solid debate performances of the non-Perry candidates on stage. Romney's path to the nomination is a plurality not a majority of each primary and caucus vote. The last thing Romney wants is a Romney vs Perry face off and is clearly happy to let all comers join the fray.
Case in point: While Perry was chomping at the bit ready to respond to an expected pointed question from Romney, instead Romney threw a soft ball to Michele Bachmann, hoping to pump up the candidate that was dominating Iowa before Rick Perry jumped in.
Also turning in another solid, crowd-pleasing performance: Newt Gingrich. The former House Speaker and college professor was in his element in the "Sunday morning talk show" table set. He was intellectually engaged, expert at injecting himself politely, and appropriately professorial in his demeanor. Though we were hoping to see him walk the plank after his attack on budget wunderkind Paul Ryan, Gingrich's debate performances make us glad he's still around.
Herman Cain, at center stage in this debate as he has risen to second in national polls, put forward a solid, though not stellar, performance. Cain was smart in knowing that the ultimate value in the debates are the news stories that come out of them, and one thing certain to garner its share of column inches tomorrow is 9-9-9, Cain's tax policy of a 9% corporate, personal income and national sales tax. He deserves enormous credit for putting forward what former Romney advisor Alex Castellanos said was the "only transformational plan to change Washington that has caught on."
We say solid, not stellar, because outside of the 9-9-9 plan, Cain's answers on the economy were shaky at best. Praising a former Fed Chairman and saying his economic advisors would be the American people are answers that will bring some harsh attacks the longer he stays in the top tier in polling.
Michele Bachmann, knowing that Cain (and Perry) have eaten into most of her support in Iowa, stepped up her game quite a bit, laying the foundation for an attack on the 9-9-9 plan and framing herself as the chief Obamacare opponent. It may be too late for her campaign though, as she has let go most of her staff and is struggling to raise funds.
That is increasingly an important factor in this primary. There is less than three months to go until New Hampshire voters start casting their ballots, leaving little time for candidates to come from behind or significantly shake up the race. Because of that limited time left, for every debate that another candidate is not the clear winner, Romney wins by default. This one was no exception.
The question now is: can Romney be taken down? Perry's web ad hitting Romney on his healthcare care plan is devastating. But is there enough time for it to make a difference?