GOP Debate: Romney Strong, Cain Surging, Perry in Free-Fall

From Hanover, N.H., five things we learned from Tuesday's Republican debate on the economy

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HANOVER, N.H. -- Five takeaways from the GOP debate:

1. So much for the big Perry comeback.
Coming off a streak of debate performances so notably shaky that they threatened to torpedo his high-flying campaign, the Texas governor needed to rally in a big way. His advisers promised he was getting more practice -- and more sleep -- in order to turn things around.

It didn't work.

Perry stammered through his answers, missed obvious gimmes and seemed strangely absent from much of the discussion. 

Late in the debate, Perry got perhaps the biggest fat pitch of the night: a question about Solyndra, the bankrupt solar-energy firm that has become conservatives' touchstone for Obama administration incompetence. Instead of teeing off on the president, environmentalists and pork-barrel spending, Perry replied, "Well, I don't think the federal government should be involved in that type of investment, period. If states want to choose to do that, I think that's fine." It was the perfect cue for the moderator's follow-up on similar projects funded by a controversial Texas investment office -- and though Perry has been defending that for years in debates back home, he had trouble clearly explaining it.

Early on, Perry noted his short time in the race compared to two-time candidate Mitt Romney: "Mitt has had six years to be working on a plan. I have been in this for about eight weeks." It seemed like he was making excuses -- and not very convincing ones considering his nearly three decades in public life.

With all the training he's supposedly done, Perry's campaign now faces a proposition that, if true, would be insurmountable: It's not the preparation that's the problem. It's the candidate.

2. Romney is in command. The former Massachusetts governor has an assurance, deftness and poise that have eluded him at the beginning of his presidential-candidate career more than four years ago. Maybe it's practice. Maybe it's the delicious feeling of his solidifying front-runner status. Maybe it's the lingering glow, and instructive aggressiveness, of his big endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie earlier Tuesday.

The Mitt Romney of 2007 tended to get impatient and flustered when confronted. This Romney stays cool and doesn't take slights personally. Most important, he seems to be in his comfort zone: He's not afraid to be the smart guy, the geek, the Harvard Business School guy. That's what he's running on now. The voters who prefer heart to head have been written off as unwinnable.

Romney was willing to venture into very dangerous territory -- defending the Bush administration's much-reviled financial-system rescue. He name-dropped academic economists both alive (Greg Mankiw) and dead (Milton Friedman). He spoke in favor of progressive taxation. He mounted a nerdily stirring justification of complexity against Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, which he deemed overly simplistic: "Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems, and I must admit that simple answers are always helpful, but oftentimes inadequate."

Romney even went on offense on health care, his biggest conservative heresy, touting himself  as the only candidate to propose a reform plan for once Obamacare is repealed, as they all have sworn to do.

3. They're gunning for Herman Cain next. Cain has floated to a healthy second place in numerous national polls, picking up steam based on his personal charisma, his business background and Perry's crash to earth. His "9-9-9" plan was mentioned so often in the debate you'd think it was American voters' No. 1 concern rather than an obscure -- and, it turns out, intermediate -- plot to dynamite the tax code.

Cain showed how he got this far: He's quick on his feet and likable. To a moderator's assertion that his plan wouldn't raise enough tax revenue to fund the government, he replied -- without snapping or growling -- "The problem with that analysis is that it is inaccurate," drawing a big laugh. He patiently endured the other candidates' condescension, such as when Jon Huntsman said he "thought [9-9-9] was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it." After the debate, Cain appeared in person in the spin room, drawing a huge media throng and showing he's able, and unafraid, to face questions.

But Cain also showed signs he'll have trouble as the probing deepens now that he's in a competitive position. He named as his chief economic adviser an Ohio wealth manager who is not a trained economist. He said he had two candidates in mind to head the Federal Reserve, but refused to name them. And his praise for Alan Greenspan, coupled with his onetime service on the Federal Reserve Board of Kansas City, are likely to alienate some of his tea-party supporters as they come to light.

4. It's crowded in the second tier. With Romney seeming to pull away from the pack and hope fading for Perry, the would-be giant-killer, a vacuum has been created, and we know how nature feels about those.

Even as the media were rushing to anoint Cain as the new No. 2, there was a sense he wouldn't own the spot for long based on the boom-and-bust cycles of Perry and Michele Bachmann before him. Bachmann also had a good debate, showcasing her command of policy with answers that drew on her experience in Congress. So did Newt Gingrich, whose campaign is staffing up in key states and hoping for a rebirth. So did Rick Santorum, who's proven over and over that he's the field's most adept verbal combatant, skilled at spotting the logical flaw in an opponent's argument -- and fierce in calling him on it. So did Ron Paul, who got served softballs on Fed policy without getting drawn into his less orthodox views on foreign policy. Even Huntsman, who's been gaining in New Hampshire, had a decent debate.

"There is a sort of intramural going on between all the non-Romney [candidates]," observed Perry strategist Dave Carney. "Very few Cain people are going to be for Romney when it comes down to it. ... All voters are shopping around right now. They'll light on a name, but most of them are not going to lie down in front of a bus for anybody."

5. Broad agreement on economics. After the last few intensely acrimonious debates, Tuesday's was marked by broad comity -- probably because it was exclusively focused on economic issues.

Sure, there was sniping. But the social and cultural issues that cause so much intensely personal friction, like immigration and religion, weren't in the mix. And foreign policy, where the candidates have real disagreements, didn't much enter in either, though Romney's plan to confront China on trade drew a substantive rebuke from Huntsman, the former ambassador to Beijing. 

For the most part, though, they endorsed each other's points, extended each other's arguments and echoed each other's ideas. At one point at the end of the debate, while Gingrich was talking, Bachmann chimed in to feed him lines that would help his argument, smiling and nodding, "I agree, I agree." 

This is, after all, the field of candidates who all agreed that they would not raise taxes even if offered a bargain whereby 10 times as much would be cut from government as the amount of new revenue raised. When it comes to economics, they may disagree about the means, but they agree on the ends -- reduce the size of government, don't raise taxes.

And of course, they agree on the ultimate end: Get rid of a once-popular president made vulnerable by a staggering economy.

Image credit: Reuters
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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