Herman Cain quickly found himself being pummeled at Tuesday night’s CNN debate, even as his rivals preceded their punches with words of praise, and his “read my plan” defense was strikingly weak.
But after those opening moments, it was Mitt Romney who took over the event with a series of toe-to-toe exchanges—with Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and, most vociferously, Rick Perry—in which he stood his ground and refused to be talked over.
Perhaps such things shouldn’t matter, but by keeping his cool and forcing his rivals to stop interrupting him, Romney projected an image of strength—and cemented his status as the man to beat. He undoubtedly bested the Las Vegas spread in what had to be his most animated debate performance this year.
The contrast with Cain was unmistakable. The Hermanator simply insisted that critics of his 9-9-9 tax plan were wrong and he was right, although he acknowledged on Meet the Press that some people’s taxes would in fact go up under his proposal.
The other candidates took pains to credit Cain—Gingrich for his “courage,” Perry saying “I love you, brother”—but the consensus was that his tax plan was a bust. Cain kept insisting the barbs were “apples and oranges,” turning his answers into fruit salad.
Perry easily turned in his most energetic and focused performance after a series of stumbling outings, but it mattered little. For one thing, he repeated last week’s puzzling debate tactic of touting a plan—in this case, to create jobs—that he hasn’t yet announced. For another, he lost the night’s most dramatic exchange when he repeatedly tried to drown out Romney, and the former Massachusetts governor demanded that he be allowed to finish until Perry finally yielded the floor.
Perry awkwardly pivoted from an Anderson Cooper question about the high rate of Texans without health insurance to illegal immigration, accusing Romney of hypocrisy on the issue. He dredged up the old issue of illegal immigrants having worked at Romney’s home; Romney said he fired the lawn company after it turned out it had hired illegals.
Romney, tweaking Perry for having had “a tough couple of debates,” quickly punched back by hitting the Texas governor for allowing a tuition break for children of illegal immigrants. Moments earlier, Romney had gotten Gingrich to acknowledge that he once backed the individual health-insurance mandate for which he was now criticizing Romney.
Romney was less successful at parrying Santorum’s criticism that Massachusetts is now having to deal with rising health costs that were barely addressed by Romneycare, retreating to the argument that the plan is popular in the state.
The most fraught moment in Las Vegas came when Cooper asked about the recent charges by Robert Jeffress, the pro-Perry preacher who called Mormonism a “cult.” Perry responded by proclaiming his own faith and doggedly refusing to criticize Jeffress, even while saying he disagreed with his remarks. Romney was measured in saying he was troubled by the suggestion of a religious test for public office and chided Perry for failing to criticize that approach. The two men later battled over their gubernatorial job-creation statistics, but it had the feeling of overplayed greatest hits.
Michele Bachmann seized an attention-grabbing moment during a discussion of home foreclosures. “Hold on, moms!” she declared, feeling their pain. But she, like her rivals, offered no plan to help struggling taxpayers hold on to their houses other than to say she would create jobs.
For all the Cain hype as he has surged in the polls, the former pizza executive seemed to fade as the debate wore on, especially when the subject turned to foreign policy, where he is visibly less confident. Despite the pundits’ predictions, the spotlight moved inexorably back toward Romney, who actually showed flashes of the passion that has been so conspicuously missing from his campaign. Las Vegas should adjust its betting odds: Romney just moved one step closer to the nomination.