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Right Turn
Posted at 11:30 PM ET, 09/22/2011

Orlando GOP debate: A strong night for Santorum as Perry fades

When the Republican presidential contenders debated in Orlando tonight, it was really two debates. In the first third of the evening, a series of disjointed questions without follow-ups, Texas Gov. Rick Perry seemed strong and well-prepared. But he faded over the rest of the debate, appearing to lose his steam just as he was trying to paint Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper.

The big winner of the night, however, was Rick Santorum.

Santorum has been waiting for the chance to supplant Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) as the third-ranking candidate in the race. Tonight he went a long way toward achieving that. Bachmann never managed to make a presence. Santorum, however, socked Perry on in-state tuition breaks for Texas college students who are illegal immigrants, making the point that Perry is subsidizing those people over non-Texan American citizens. On Afghanistan, he hit a home run, telling off Jon Huntsman Jr. over the latter’s suggestion to bug out of a war short of victory. He barked, “Just because our economy is sick doesn’t mean America is sick.” When asked about right-to-work laws, Santorum smartly steered the discussion to public employee unions. As the debate went on, he received more and more questions, a sure sign he was becoming a contender.

Perry has to reverse his slide, and for about a half-hour he seemed to be doing that. But then the fumbles and the missed opportunities came. He gave a near-incoherent answer on an arguably hard question on what to do if Pakistan lost control of its nuclear weapons. He said we should be friends with India (a non-sequitur and hardly a weak point for President Obama). He was smashed on the in-state tuition question (to my chagrin, since his more moderate immigration policy is essential for the long-term prospects of the party).

He then made two errors that will come back to haunt him. First, in distinguishing himself from George W. Bush, he said he disagreed on Medicare Part D. (In the last debate, Perry had said he’d support keeping it.) More importantly, in a tussle with Romney, he declared that he wouldn’t move an inch away from his book. Yikes! That ties him to a host of positions that he presumably no longer believes. In the book, he favors states being allowed to legalize pot and gay marriage, and repeal of the 16th and 17th Amendments. Moreover, it is in that book that he argues Social Security is unconstitutional.

But the moment that may have sunk him was when he attempted to reel off the list of Romney flip-flops. He seemed to lose his place, get tired and stumble. Was he physically tired? Did he have a senior moment? The conservative media on Twitter did a group gasp.

Romney had his bobble early in the debate, when he got tangled up in a question as to whether he supported Race to the Top, the Obama education plan. He at first denied that he supported it and then praised some elements. But that was about the only tough moment. He has polished his answer on RomneyCare, gave a very solid defense of Israel, and pushed Perry into a corner, or rather into the pages of his own book. He even showed a flash of humor, saying he couldn’t get out of his mind the image Perry described of mating Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich as his VP.

Romney continues to do well in these things because Perry is weak in them. By default, Romney then becomes the most impressive person on the stage. But now the question arises:Can Santorum make a go of it? If Bachmann fades and Perry can’t perform, Santorum can claw his way into a two-man race with Romney.

For now, Perry’s problem remains. When the debate was non-confrontational he could repeat his talking points (very general propositions on his economic approach). But he still lacks any policy specifics. Moreover, one senses that he simply can’t adequately go toe-to-toe with even lesser opponents. If he can’t get by Santorum, how’s he going to beat Obama?

As for Romney, he showed a bit more verve, but he’s not, in contrast to 2008, trying to be someone he’s not. He’s the business guy. He’s the middle-of-the-road Republican. He’s the responsible internationalist. It’s not all that thrilling, but it may just be the best the GOP can do this time around.

By  |  11:30 PM ET, 09/22/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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