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The Florida Republican presidential debate: What we learned

at 12:27 PM ET, 09/13/2011

Since the Florida Republican presidential debate ended 12 hours ago, we’ve been reflecting on lessons learned from the night. (Man that looks WAY nerdier now that we see it written down.)


Republican presidential candidates, from left, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, applaud before a Republican presidential debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) (Mike Carlson - AP)

Our take on what we should take from the Tampa CNN/Tea Party Express debate is after the jump.

* Rick Perry is a work in progress: It’s easy to forget when you see him at the top of every poll in the race that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is VERY new at being a national candidate. He reminded everyone of that last night when he was caught badly off guard on questions about his executive order on an HPV vaccine. He tried to clean up the mess with a line about $5,000 not being enough to bribe him. Um, not good. (Democratic outside groups have almost certainly already put that quote into a TV ad to be deployed if Perry is the nominee.) Perry’s stumbles last night are far from fatal and, lucky for him, he has three more debates between now and mid-October to get better. But, make no mistake: he needs to. Get better, that is.

* Michele Bachmann isn’t dead yet: It took a month for the Minnesota Congresswoman to re-find — is that a word? — the voice that fueled her rapid ascent to the top (or close to it) of the Republican field. But find it she did last night, hammering Perry on HPV — a line of attack she is keeping up today. Bachmann still has a problem on her hands as evidenced by the precipitous drop-off in her poll numbers over the past month but she seems to have found an effective line of argument to suggest that Perry isn’t truly the conservative he claims to be. The question now is whether Bachmann can take back some of the support that Perry grabbed from her over the past month.

* Ron Paul, not ready for primetime: Establishment Republican strategists wondered for month — privately, of course — if and when some of the more out-of-the-mainstream views of the Texas GOP Congressman would be exposed. It happened last night. Paul’s extended defense of his view that the United States had incited the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 due to its use of military force in foreign countries was a “wow” moment. His answer brought heavy booing from the tea-party aligned crowd and proved once and for all that while Paul is clearly an improved candidate from his 2008 presidential run, he holds views that make it virtually impossible for him to be a serious contender for the GOP nomination.

* Debate audiences matter: Last night’s audience was a very active one, applauding, booing and generally involving themselves in the proceedings. And it made a difference. While, on the merits, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney clearly got the better of Perry in the Social Security skirmish, the crowd was so heavily pro-Perry (at least at the start) that it felt like a draw. The booing of Romney’s answer on the Fair Tax and Perry’s response on immigration not to mention the wild applause for virtually every answer former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave seemed to shape the debate and the after-action analysis. While playing too much to the audience in the room can be a strategic mistake — the number of people watching on television is vastly larger and therefore more important — there’s also something to be said for making some attempt to win in the room too.

* Santorum + Newt=interesting: As we mentioned in our winners and losers post last night, one of the most fascinating storyline of the debate was the budding alliance between the former Pennsylvania Senator and the former Speaker of the House. (The alliance does make some sense; the two men served in the House together in the early 1990s and Santorum was elected to the Senate in 1994, the same year Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the House.) While neither Gingrich nor Santorum individually is likely to be a major factor in future debates — or the race more generally — if and when they combine forces they could have some influence on both the topics of discussion and where the field directs its fire.

 
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