Not that nothing has changed since Labor Day, when this round of forums began. That was evident in the opening minutes of Tuesday’s debate near the strip in Las Vegas. Businessman Herman Cain, whose rise has been one of the big surprises of the year, came under sharp attack for his 9-9-9 tax plan. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose decline has matched Cain’s rise, came out swinging — at Cain and even more at Romney, the man he sees as his real rival.
Tuesday’s debate turned into a rolling brawl, as personal as it was pointed. It was as if all seven candidates assembled on a stage could sense a new phase in their contest coming and were rushing to make up for lost time and missed opportunities before the scene shifts. It was a fitting conclusion to one of the most intense periods of televised debating in any presidential race in memory.
The debates both changed and solidified the nature of the race. Romney has been the steady candidate whose debate performances have been the most consistent. His calling card is the argument that in a race against President Obama next year, he would have the best chance of winning.
Around him, the field has been a jumble of changing fortunes and surprise shifts. First it was Michele Bachmann who showed promise. Then Perry, then Cain. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich thinks he might be the next to see a boost in his support.
Those shifts illustrate a hesitancy on the part of conservative Republicans, particularly those in the tea party movement, to embrace Romney as well as a lack of consensus on whether there is a better, stronger candidate for the general election.
If Perry showed that he sees Romney as the candidate to beat, Romney demonstrated that he sees the Texan as his biggest threat. Though Cain was pummeled over the details of his tax plan, the pointed exchanges between Romney and Perry signaled where many Republican strategists believe the race is heading: a showdown between the two men.
That was the assumption in August when Perry jumped into the race and surged to the top of the field. But after several poor debate appearances, there were questions among Republicans about whether he was a spent force, a candidate who was ill-prepared for the competition of a national campaign. Romney’s campaign has never wavered. Throughout the fall, his advisers have aimed their barbs at Perry, and more are coming.