Rick Perry Comes to Life, and He Really Doesn't Like Mitt Romney

Despite Cain's technical claim to front-runner status -- every poll in the last week or so has shown him statistically tying or surpassing Romney -- it's clear his rivals don't believe he has the staying power to make him worth really working to tear down. They're pretty sure he can do that on his own.

4. Everybody's a little punch-drunk at this point. This debate was the most contentious we've seen yet, a melee of shocking nastiness and rancor. Some in the GOP fretted that the ultimate effect would be to damage the party as a whole as the candidates seemed to tear each other apart at the expense of their ultimate goal -- beating President Obama in the general election. Several speculated that Jon Huntsman, who opted out of the debate in a show of solidarity with New Hampshire, might have come out of the night the best of anyone.

These candidates have met for five debates in six weeks. It's probably a good thing that they'll be spending the next three weeks apart. We could all use a break.

5. There's life in the old Newt yet. Gingrich's shtick in these debates has been predictable: go after the moderators and the media and position himself as the uniter in a divisive world. (It helps that few have bothered to attack him.) Nonetheless, it's working for him, and Gingrich seemed to get the most airtime of the candidates not named Romney, Perry or Cain. He hit it out of the park with his answer to a question about how Republicans can appeal to Latino voters: "I think we have to have the same message for every American of every ethnic background that we want to make America work again."

Gingrich may have lost some local support, however, when he came out in favor of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which would store the nation's spent nuclear material less than 100 miles outside Las Vegas. That might not be a deal-breaker with Nevada voters primarily concerned about the economy -- John McCain supported Yucca and so did George W. Bush before him. But it won't help.

6. Ron Paul can't stop being Ron Paul. His increasingly professionalized campaign is working to shoehorn the eccentric Paul into a conventional Republican mold -- running ads in Iowa selling him as the candidate of family values, for example. But Paul continues to show, over and over again, that he cannot be tamed or tempered. He said repealing Obamacare wasn't enough and that Medicare, Medicaid and the prescription drug benefit should also come up for reconsideration. He didn't just affirm he favors yanking aid from Israel, he contended U.S. aid is hurting Israel. He brought up Iran-Contra, defaming the memory of the sainted Ronald Reagan, and he stuck up for the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, saying, "They're all suspects. They're not terrorists. You haven't convicted them."

For the many Paul fans who admire his steadfast convictions, his defense of civil liberties and his staunch consistency, all these statements are cause for celebration. They're also the reason his effort to broaden his appeal to the wider Republican electorate is doomed to fail.

7. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum aren't ready to fade away. Bachmann made a strongly emotional, gender-based appeal: "I'm talking to moms across this country. ... There are women right now all across this country and moms across this country whose husbands, through no fault of their own, are losing their job, and they can't keep that house." It was a startlingly retrograde gender-role prism for someone trying to be the first woman president, but also a sign that Bachmann, who has historically shied away from identity politics, believes she could squeeze some mileage out of playing the gender card. Santorum, for his part, continues to play the exasperated but effective debater, at one point shouting at Romney: "You're out of time! You're out of time!" He often scores points, but rarely comes out of these exchanges looking good.

Bachmann, Santorum and Gingrich have absorbed a lesson from the Cain surge: It can happen to anyone. You just have to stay in the game and wait for the moment to find you.

Image credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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