Mitt Romney was the clear winner. It's obvious that he has cemented himself as the moderate/electable alternative to Perry and Bachmann, and he won nearly every exchange with Perry due to his superior intellectual firepower. I've written here before that he is a dishonest, unprincipled hack, but I'll admit he had a fine showing last night, impressively trading punches with Perry from the get-go. He handled serious questions about Bain Capital with great skill. My concerns about Romney's viability in the general election are quickly disappearing. I think his business acumen would dwarf Obama on stage.
Jon Huntsman had an outstanding performance. While he demonstrated seriousness in the first debate, he was clearly a bit wooden and nervous. Last night, he was phenomenal, turning in one of the best debate performances I've ever seen. I liked that he took on Perry and Romney directly and contrasted his own, more impressive, economic record with theirs. Down in the polls, Huntsman is clearly trying to goad Perry and/or Romney into a fight to raise his profile. I've said before that I think Huntsman's ultimate goal is the nomination in 2016 or 2020, and he's obviously facing an uphill climb to peel away voters from the Romney machine. But last night's performance was fantastic, and I hope he stays in the race.
Michele Bachmann was laughably bad. Even next to an intellectual lightweight like Perry, she shrank deep into the periphery. She clearly is becoming a fringe candidate like Gary Bauer or Al Sharpton, which is precisely what she is. Pressed for a regulation she'd eliminate as president, Bachmann gave a tired, rehearsed line about Obamacare. While Obamacare is terrible policy, her answer was a complete copout, demonstrating that she has no clue about any other regulation that she'd repeal. Like Sarah Palin, she throws out tinny lines and soundbites without fully understanding what she's talking about.
As good as Ron Paul was in the previous debate, he was equally awful last night. Paul looked all of his 76 years, railing against FEMA, Social Security and the Fed, and failing to string together his libertarian narrative as he did so masterfully last month. If the moderators were attempting to paint Paul as an anti-government crank who shouldn't be trusted to sit next to the red phone, they did a superb job. He looked terrible. And despite what the polls might say, I cannot imagine some of these responses playing well against Obama in the general. Next to Obama's cerebral detachment, Paul will look hysterical and reactionary. He would make an excellent president, but after performances like this, I fear he'd be a terrible nominee.
Newt Gingrich was, as usual, abysmal. How a man who has been married to three women and cheated on two of them, and who was thrown out of Washington in disgrace 13 years ago, can proselytize like this is beyond the definition of chutzpah. His legacy is wasted potential, hypocrisy and unbounded egotism. Gingrich's attack of the moderators (and the "Liberal Media") for trying to flush out differences between the candidates was beyond absurd. It's a debate.
Herman Cain has a plan. Really. You can read it on his website.
Rick Santorum was his typically arrogant, aggrandizing self. I'm proud of the Republican Party that he remains on the fringe.
And finally, Rick Perry. He was underwhelming. He proved himself a lightweight when compared to Romney and Huntsman. His Texas jobs record, while facially impressive, has thousands of holes (massive oil and gas reserves, no state income tax, etc.). Despite the lines of attack being obvious from the opening, Perry stumbled badly several times when confronted with the spots on his record. We've written here before about Perry's serious deviations from conservative orthodoxy on issues like eminent domain and healthcare that are deeply disconcerting. Last night, I saw far too many resemblances between Perry and George W. Bush. The inability to match a smarter opponent (Romney) on policy. Heated rhetoric instead of policy prescriptions. The same lack of intellectual curiosity. What Perry has going for him is that many conservatives don't care about these things. They're more concerned with rhetoric than results -- hence the veneration of the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, who have never accomplished anything meaningful in terms of conservative public policy, and the distrust of Mitch Daniels and Hunstman, who have sterling conservative records that would make any Reaganite proud. Conservative bloggers likely will deem Perry last night's winner because he was combative and, probably, because he reminded them of Bush. But that's no solace for me. I will certainly vote for Perry against Barack Obama if he's the nominee. But I wish the Republican base would stop cheerleading for candidates like this.