Perry arrived in a slump after three mediocre debate performances in September and poll numbers that were sinking. But he found himself struggling to reassert himself, at times sidelined as others took over the debate and at times caught in exchanges that turned unexpectedly against him.
It was Mitt Romney who prospered most. The former Massachusetts governor took advantage of a debate focused solely on the economy and a format that kept him in the thick of the discussion to deliver another crisp performance. He countered when others attacked, particularly when Perry went after him for his health-care plan in Massachusetts. The longer the debate went on, the more it favored him.
The crystallizing moments came when the candidates, for the first time in this campaign, were given an opportunity to question one another. Four of his seven rivals — Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and Perry — chose to query Romney, but none scored a clean hit.
Cain tried to turn his simple tax plan into an asset by asking Romney whether he could name all 59 points in the former governor’s recently released economic program. Romney parried by saying that simple answers “are often inadequate.” He went on to say that his economic plan is far more comprehensive than what Cain is offering.
Gingrich wondered why Romney had a proposal to lower the capital gains tax only on those Americans with incomes below $200,000, saying his threshold was even lower than President Obama has generally set. Romney turned it into a plea for helping the middle class.
“I’m not worried about rich people,” he said, adding that the poor have a social safety net. The middle class, he said, have suffered most and deserve some help.
Huntsman tried to hit Romney on his record of job creation as governor of Massachusetts but flubbed an opportunity with a ham-handed reference to weekend criticism of Romney’s Mormon religion that fell flat.
When Perry tried on health care, Romney turned it back on him. Massachusetts, he said, now has just 1 percent of children without health insurance. “You have a million kids uninsured in Texas,” he added. “A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it’s gone up.”
The debate, sponsored by The Washington Post, Bloomberg News and WBIN-TV in New Hampshire, took the candidates across a series of issues, from whether the government should have bailed out the banks in 2008, to who has a plan to create jobs, to the future of the Federal Reserve, to energy and housing and health care. It was substantive and meaty, and the candidates often went deeper than in some debates into the central issue on the minds of the American people.