Perry and Romney hog the spotlight. Gingrich hates questions. Galileo makes an entrance. Highlights from the third major 2012 forum.
Republican candidates took the stage for their third major nationally televised presidential debate on Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and -- just in case anyone was worried -- Republican presidential candidates still love Ronald Reagan.
Aside from that, here's what else we learned from the first presidential forum to feature the race's new frontrunner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry:
1. It's all about Perry -- but also Romney. Since he entered the race in August, Perry has sucked up all the media attention. He didn't just shoot to the top of polls, where he now leads nearest-competitor Romney by an average of nine percent, he's dominated headlines and discussion (serious and otherwise) for weeks. Wednesday night was no exception.
The debate opened with a question to Perry, a question to Romney about Perry's strategist calling him a "buyout specialist," a follow-up to Romney, a rebuttal from Perry, and a rebuttal from Romney to Perry's rebuttal. "We could do this all evening," host Brian Williams said. And they almost did. From there, Perry and Romney sniped at each other over job creation.
As the debate became the Romney and Perry Show, viewers could see the GOP field separating. Visually and in terms of the time they were given to speak, it looked like the GOP race really had become a contest between Perry, Romney, and everyone else.
2. Which was too bad for Michele Bachmann. The Minnesota congresswoman attained real-contender status with her first debate performance in New Hampshire in June, then showed strong again in last month's Iowa debate, effectively forcing former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty from the race by getting the better of him in a testy back-and-forth, and by winning the Ames straw poll the next day.
But Perry's entrance has left her sinking in mid-ascent, like a hot-air balloon with some type of flap problem. Bachmann has enjoyed two benefits: tea-party appeal and a good stage presence. By sucking up support in polls and screen time on Wednesday, Perry is hurting her on two fronts.
3. Ron Paul can get you a gallon of gasoline for a dime. This debate was kind of boring, compared to the last one. In Iowa, candidates were all keyed-up for the next day's straw poll in Ames. On Wednesday, fireworks were supplied by Perry and Romney in the opening minutes, but things fell flat after that. It lacked the awkward tension of Pawlenty digging at Bachmann, desperately clawing for Iowa straw-poll votes, and Bachmann hitting right back.
Thank God for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). His promise of gasoline "for a dime" was easily the most surprising line of the night. But -- psych! -- he meant silver dimes:
4. Newt Gingrich hates moderators, the media, and their silly questions. If you ask the former House speaker a question, you'd better be ready to endure an indignant snarl cast across the stage for all of cable-news-watching America to see.
In the Iowa debate last month, an outraged Gingrich accused Fox's Chris Wallace of playing "Mickey Mouse games" when the moderator asked him about his entire campaign team quitting. This time, Gingrich accused Politico's John Harris of trying to instigate intra-GOP squabbles. Harris asked Gingrich whether Romney or Perry had a better argument on health care. "I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other," Gingrich said. Zing. He then suggested the media is broadly trying to divide the GOP in an attempt to shelter President Obama:
5. For a moment, Mitt Romney appeared to be funny and cool. And he had Rick Perry to thank for it. In the Perry-and-Romney-fest of the opening minutes, all that attention played to the advantage of the Massachusetts businessman, who has a lot more national debate experience than Perry does. The latter sounded kind of wooden in at first while he got his bearings. (The book on Perry is that he's unexciting in live debates but wins anyway -- at the outset, he lived up.)