The GOP debate: 6 takeaways
It’s official — the frontrunners aren’t a mutual fan club.
Here are POLITICO’s six takeaways from Thursday’s slugfest in Orlando:
Rick Perry is not ready
For debating, anyway. Fortunately for him, there’s a brief lull where he can improve his game in time for the mid-October New Hampshire and Las Vegas face-offs.
But the concern for Perry after three weak debate performances - each one messier than the last - is that primary voters may soon start deciding he’s not ready for Barack Obama either.
Perry simply couldn’t get it done in his third outing on stage with the same rivals he’s faced before (and, for the first time, a giggly Gary Johnson).
Just like at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate - and before another Florida crowd that was prepared to welcome him - the Texas governor seemed ill-prepared, couldn’t land his punches, and he again sagged visibly toward the end, struggling even through a canned slap at Mitt Romney’s flip-flops.
His vague, tripping-across-Asia answer on a hypothetical question about getting the proverbial 3 A.M. call warning of a nuclear-armed Pakistani Taliban regime, won’t make anyone feel safer with him at the helm.
But his comments on immigration will be the ones that are most remembered. During a multi-candidate pile-on, Perry sounded a leftward tone when he suggested people who disagree with him on a particular pro-immigrant policy are lacking a “heart.”
He also stuck by his stand against a border fence, in an exchange in which former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum got the better of him. And his one moment that came close to standing out in a good way - being “lobbied” on the HPV vaccine by a dying 31-year-old - turns out to have been inaccurate.
All of it will serve to harden questions about Perry’s durability. And it raises the stakes for how he performs at the Presidency Five straw poll in Florida on Saturday.
Mitt Romney found an answer to the flip-flopper questions
It’s called Rick Perry.
Romney sought to turn his opponent’s straight-talking strength into a weakness by questioning whether Perry himself was the true flip-flopper.
Romney’s simply better at the debate game and it showed in various exchanges with Perry.
“Nice try,” was Romney’s rebuttal to Perry at two different points, before he turned the question to his advantage.
He didn’t take the chunk he wanted out of Perry on the issue of Social Security—and he got a bit mealy-mouthed during an answer about whether he supports President Obama’s “Race to the Top” education initiative. (Suggesting Gary Johnson’s dogs as his running mate wasn’t exactly a home run either).
And there is some level of risk for Romney, who sometimes offers answers that are reminiscent of John Kerry’s “smart-kid-in-the-class” performances from the 2004 cycle. While his aggressiveness with Perry has generally served him well, when delivered with too much eagerness it can be grating.
Nonetheless, what Romney needs is to steadily advance and hope that Perry sinks, and each debate has been a step toward that goal.
Rick Santorum has eclipsed Michele Bachmann
Of the fighters on the undercard, Santorum was last night’s winner.
Armed with little by way of resources and a mere fourth-place Ames Straw Poll finish, Santorum has nonetheless been taking every opportunity to make himself more of a presence in the GOP race.
On Thursday, he dominated during the parts of the debate when Romney didn’t.
He aggressively challenged Perry over the border fence issue and his assertion that Texas knows how to handle the problem. He talked about American values needing to be restored, and he made himself a major presence throughout the two-hour event.
Most important, he outshone Bachmann, whose answer about why she repeated an unsubstantiated story about the HPV vaccine leading to “mental retardation” was weak, and who was something of a non-factor in the debate. Among other things, she muffed a chance to rap Perry directly on immigration.
If Santorum can make himself the alternative to Rick Perry for social conservatives in Iowa, he has fuel to keep going.
Much of the rest of the second tier fared well too. Herman Cain told an engaging personal story about his own cancer in the context of the health care discussion. And Newt Gingrich, as he did during the last debate, made more overtures to the conservative elites whose approval he had enjoyed prior to his problem-plagued presidential run.
Jon Huntsman’s lost opportunity
The Huntsman campaign sounded the sirens about his surprising third place showing in a New Hampshire poll released on the eve of the debate—the first that showed him cracking double digits anywhere.
But that adrenaline shot didn’t translate into a solid debate performance.
Huntsman was fine, and certainly better than he was during his “Kurt Cobain” outing at the CNN debate. But he had uneven moments, like coming up on the losing end in a back-and-forth with Santorum over foreign policy and the Mideast wars.
His jokes, as they did last time, fell flat. And his attempt at being lighthearted after a question about choosing a running-mate - where he said he would pick Cain because of his yellow tie and position next to him on stage - was just awkward.
Everyone loves a good joke
Gary Johnson was ready for his close-up.
The former New Mexico governor, in his lone debate performance since the South Carolina confab hosted by Fox last spring, managed to draw steady applause during the times he was asked questions onstage.
But his most memorable line was a joke — about his neighbor’s two dogs creating “more shovel-ready” jobs than President Obama.
Scatology aside, the joke earned audience laughs, and certainly left an impression.
Ron Paul is trying to be more serious
Unlike the last two debates, where Paul took aggressive bites out of his home state governor, the Texas congressman barely laid a glove on Perry tonight.
And he didn’t seem to be trying to, either.
Paul seemed to be reaching for a more somber tone, after the CNN debate where he was asked a hypothetical about a dying 30-year-old without health insurance that produced some audience cheers for the prospect of letting the imaginary man die. He declined to speculate about his possible vice presidential nominee and instead talked of breaking into the top tier of candidates.
On the one hand, that approach helps Paul as he tries to be taken seriously by the larger Republican electorate. On the other, what makes Paul memorable are his diatribes and unexpected musings—without them, he faded into the scenery a bit.