Republican debate: What we learned in Las Vegas

at 11:17 AM ET, 10/19/2011

In an attempt to stave off debate withdrawal — there won’t be another one until, gasp, November 9 — we spent the morning sifting through last night’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em affair in Las Vegas in search of lessons learned.


(RICHARD BRIAN - REUTERS)

Our thoughts are below. Have some of your own? Offer them in the comments section.

* Mitt and Rick, not BFF: Before last night’s debate, most of the skirmishing between the former Massachusetts governor and the Texas governor was at the staff level. No longer. Perry repeatedly got into Romney’s face and Romney repeatedly took umbrage.

Perry’s attack on Romney employing illegal immigrant lawn service workers was decidedly personal and aggressive, and, for the first time in these debates, Romney got visibly angry. The extended “let me finish, no let me talk” exchange over immigration rapidly escalated to the point where it was very uncomfortable (and yet strangely alluring) to watch.

The ill will between the men seems to set the stage for a very nasty next few months as the two best-funded candidates in the race (not to mention their super PACs) will soon take to the television airwaves to continue the argument begun last night.

* Perry — not dead yet : Perry’s performance was somewhat uneven — he was terrific in the earlier part of the debate and less so as it wore on — but overall it was by far his best showing. Perry actually seemed like he wanted to be there; he was energetic and feisty.

We’ve written before that Republican primary voters want to nominate a fighter, someone they believe can take the fight to President Obama on all fronts. Last night, Perry was that guy.

Perry critics will rightly note that he might have been a little too hot — particularly with his attack on Romney’s lawn service. (“The idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy,” Perry said at one point. Dizamn.)

But, if the choice is between the laconic Perry of the Dartmouth debate and the fiery Perry in Las Vegas, his campaign will take the latter option every time.

* Health care still matters: Romney had largely avoided an in-depth discussion/critique of his Massachusetts health care plan in the debate prior to last night. But, when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum went on the attack against the law, it served as a potent reminder of how potentially damaging it remains for Romney.

While he avoided the full “gang up” effect that hamstrung him during the 2008 debates, it was clear that Romney was on the verge of a very bad moment. (In truth, it was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann who saved him by turning the conversation to President Obama’s health care law.)

Health care remains a major problem for Romney; it was the second most commonly mentioned phrase when people were asked for one word that described him in a new Washington Post-Pew poll. Romney has to hope he can fight the health care debate to a draw; he’ll never win on the issue and very well could lose on it.

* Cain isn’t (totally) able: We wondered going into the debate how the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza would withstand the increased scrutiny that comes with his soaring poll numbers. The answer: only so-so.

Cain did a decent job of fending off attacks on his “9-9-9” plan — apples aren’t oranges, after all — but really showed the gaps in his knowledge when the conversation moved off of the economy. He was shaky on immigration and his answer on negotiating with terrorists directly contradicted a position he had taken only a few hours earlier.

In truth, it’s not really Cain’s fault. The leap he has made over the past month is akin to a pitcher in single A being called up to the majors and asked to pitch a playoff game in Yankee Stadium. It’s a gigantic task that he, at least at the moment, isn’t totally equipped to handle.

That said, Cain’s performance last night was far from a disaster. But it likely will take some of the shine off of him in conservative circles.

* Santorum as agitator: The former Pennsylvania senator has the slimmest of chances to wind up as the nominee but that doesn’t mean he won’t have an impact on who the party eventually picks.

Santorum is an able debater who, unlike some of the others on stage, is more than willing to go directly at his opponents’ weaknesses.

Santorum effectively skewered Romney on health care and, when the former Massachusetts governor tried to push back, he refused to back down. He did the same with Cain and the “9-9-9” plan and with Perry on TARP.

Dare we say it: Santorum was the straw that stirred the debate drink last night. And, it’s a role he clearly relishes — so expect much more of it future debates.

 
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