5 Takeaways From the GOP Presidential Debate

The debate signaled a shift in momentum as Rick Perry struggled to explain positions and Mitt Romney stayed unruffled

Thursday night's Republican debate featured a semi-fresh face (former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who hadn't qualified for a debate since May), but few new lines of discussion and no defining moments likely to remembered longer than the wrap-up shows on Fox. At times, the debate's fascination with its own technology-word clouds and interactive polls and videos-threatened to overwhelm the actual interaction between the candidates.

Overall this debate probably did less to advance and sharpen the argument among the Republican contenders than any of the earlier contests. But the evening did advance the GOP race on some fronts. Here are five of the most important:

  1. Like the immediately previous debate in Tampa, it suggested a subtle shift in momentum. In Thursday's debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's support for in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants drew more pointed criticism than Mitt Romney's individual heath insurance mandate -- and Perry seemed to struggle more than Romney in defending his position. That doesn't mean Romney has defused opposition to his health care reform plan; but it does suggest that immigration, an equally emotional issue for Republican voters, might cause Perry comparable headaches before the race is through. Former Sen. Rick Santorum signaled a notable escalation of the attacks on the Texas governor when he flatly described Perry as "soft on illegal immigration." Overall, Romney again seemed more unruffled, and more fluent, than Perry who never managed to fully unfurl one of the ringing declarations of conservative principle that marked his strongest moments in his earlier debates.

  2. Romney and Perry are deploying strikingly overlapping lines of attack against each other -- with one big exception. Perry, reprising Romney's greatest vulnerability from 2008, takes every opportunity to label the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper; Romney looking to blunt that vulnerability, is trying to turn the charge back on Perry by accusing him of abandoning earlier and more incendiary positions on Social Security. The difference is that Perry is launching his attack unmistakably from the right, while Romney is trying to execute a more complex encircling maneuver against the Texas governor. Though Perry garbled his lines at a key moment (and seemed again to lose momentum overall in the debate's later stages), he sought to portray Romney as insufficiently conservative not only on his health care mandate, but education reform, gun control and abortion. Romney is pursuing Perry from both directions-from the right by joining in the criticism of his immigration policies, but from the center by accusing him of seeking to dismantle Social Security. At the debate's close, Romney's campaign opened another line of centrist attack by issuing a press release criticizing Perry for the high level of uninsured Texans. Such an attack may prove more compelling in the general election (should Perry get that far) than the primary, but it signaled Romney's determination to buffet Perry from several directions simultaneously.

  3. More than any of the earlier debates, this encounter highlighted the ferocious centrifugal pull on the 2012 GOP presidential field. The tone of the questions -- both from the grassroots activists and the panel of Fox reporters -- captured the demand among much of the Republican electorate for an uncompromising and unqualified conservative agenda. In the debate's first hour alone, Rick Santorum proposed to ban public employee unions; Michele Bachmann proposed to eliminate the Education Department and build a fence along every foot of the Mexican border; Herman Cain would he would shutter the Environmental Protection Agency; Newt Gingrich described President Obama's agenda as "socialist"; and Ron Paul said he would end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. All of that raises the possibility that the GOP this year could produce a convention platform that includes provisions that the eventual nominee, especially if it's Romney, may feel compelled to renounce.

  4. At several points, Romney perceptibly resisted the magnetic pull toward the right. Prompted by a question, he still would not call Obama a socialist; he would not entirely renounce his previous praise of aspects of Obama's Race to the Top education reform; and he would not apologize for targeting solely to the middle-class his tax cuts on investment and savings. For a candidate who has been knocked from his perch as frontrunner -- and who polls show is trailing Perry among the most ideologically ardent elements of the GOP coalition, particularly self-identified Tea Party supporters -- Romney is showing either remarkable discipline, or blithe overconfidence, in keeping at least one eye on the general election through the primary contest. The most recent polls released in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, all of which showed Romney in a somewhat stronger position than appeared likely two weeks ago, suggest that approach may be paying dividends, at least so far.

  5. Republicans in 2012 may regain some of the ground they've lost with Hispanics because of the intense economic suffering in that community. But the tone of Thursday's discussion about immigration -- and especially the harshly negative reaction from the crowd to any deviation from hard line policies -- offered some pointed reminders of how difficult it will for Republicans to lastingly reach out to Hispanics while the party's electoral coalition grows increasingly dependent on older, blue-collar and rural whites who are the most uneasy about the nation's propulsive demographic change.