CNBC presidential debate: What we learned

at 12:50 PM ET, 11/10/2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s near-minute long unsuccessful attempt to remember the three federal agencies he would eliminate if he became president dominated the post-game analysis of Wednesday night’s presidential debate in Michigan.


ROCHESTER, MI - NOVEMBER 09: Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a debate hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party at Oakland University on November 9, 2011 in Rochester, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
And, while the Perry gaffe likely ensures he will have never have the chance to eliminate any federal departments there were a few other take-aways from the debate that are worth noting.

Our list of what we learned is below. What did you learn?

* Perry on life support: Coming into last night’s debate, we wrote that the Texas governor has slipped into second-tier candidate status according to several recent polls. The thing that always kept him in the conversation, however, was the $15 million he had in the bank at the end of September.

The problem for Perry in the wake of that disastrous debate gaffe is that it’s hard to see how he raises much more money than he currently has on hand. Donors like to give to winners and Perry looked anything but that in the debate. He is currently in the midst of a PR blitz — a personal appearance in the spin room, a series of hits on morning TV shows and a stop by “Late Night with David Letterman”tonight — to try and save himself from, well, himself.

But, the damage is almost certainly done. It’s hard to see a path back to relevancy for Perry after last night — although, in a campaign this unpredictable, anything is possible.

* It’s Romney’s nomination to lose: Perry’s collapse is likely to eliminate (or, at a minimum, badly hamstring) the one person other than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who has the financial firepower to contest all four — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — states set to vote in January 2012.

Yes, businessman Herman Cain has his pocket of loyal supporters as do former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. But none of that trio has demonstrated the ability or willingness to grow beyond their natural base(s). And none of those three will be able to stay within financial shouting distance of Romney.

It’s clear that the Republican electorate still isn’t in love with Romney — and they may never be. But with Perry’s likely collapse, Cain’s ongoing problems in dealing with a series of sexual harassment allegations, Gingrich’s struggles to raise real money and Paul’s outside-of-the-Republican-mainstream views, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see where the serious challenge to Romney comes from.

* Newt is the new, new thing: Gingrich’s debate performance was greeted with cheers within the debate hall and almost certainly will be enough to afford him some momentum as conservatives — wary of Cain and done with Perry — look for the next big thing.

As we noted above, Gingrich’s ability to grow in the race has limits — no organization and little message discipline aren’t the pillars on which a successful presidential race is typically built — but with a series of debates set for the next few weeks, he will get plenty of free media that should keep him on the minds of conservatives.

The question is whether Gingrich goes through the same boom/bust cycle that reality star Donald Trump, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Perry have experienced so far this year.

* Jon Huntsman, populist?: With potential contenders for the anti-Romney slot falling faster than Joe Paterno at Penn State (too soon?), the former Utah governor just might have an opportunity in the race.

To date, Huntsman’s message has been hard to pin down — seriously, can you think of what it is? — but in last night’s debate he seemed to try to take on the role of populist.

“I want to be the president of the 99 percent,” Huntsman said in reference to the “Occupy Wall Street” movements across the country. “I also want to be the president of the 1 percent.” At another point he said: “The people in this country are sick and tired of seeing taxpayer dollars go toward bailouts, and we’re not going to have it anymore in this country.”

Huntsman isn’t the most natural of populists — he comes from one of the wealthiest families in Utah and has spent time at the highest levels of a series of presidential administrations. But, then again, neither was former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) and he very nearly became the Democratic presidential nominee.

If Huntsman can transform himself into a populist, he could make some noise — particularly because he is the only candidate other than Romney who has significant personal wealth to fund his campaign.

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