Yes, Herman Cain’s obsession with the topography of Iran showed up. No, Michele Bachmann’s friend, the Seven-Foot Doctor, didn’t.
Probably the newsiest thing that happened in tonight’s Republican debate on national security was that Newt Gingrich went where Rick Perry should never have gone and tried to make a case for moderation on immigration. Now, I don’t think Gingrich has any plausible chance of winning the nomination – yes, he’s polling well, but I’m just not going to believe that his severe weaknesses have evaporated. But it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the immigration issue has on him. And what effect, if any, he has on the GOP immigration discussion.
Beyond that, I agree with what seemed to be the Twitter consensus during the debate that Mitt Romney wasn’t doing especially well. He didn’t offer much to convince reluctant Republicans to resign themselves to him, but he didn’t do much to hurt himself, either. Given that he’s well in the lead, that’s probably an acceptable enough outcome for him.
I do think that Perry continues to improve. No, he’s still terrible at the format, but, for example, on his proposal to cut off foreign aid to nations such as Pakistan, I think wonks are missing what’s going on. Perry’s not making a stupid foreign policy point; he’s making a very popular budget point. That was Perry’s game plan the whole evening, from mentioning abortion in the context of China to scare tactics about terrorists invading through Mexico. Unfortunately for Perry, he’s fallen so far that it’s not clear whether anyone is listening, and he is still, as I said, an awful debater. But his positions probably are closer than any of the others to matching what the Tea Partyers and the other solid conservatives want to hear - without flipping over entirely to utter craziness, as Bachmann and Cain constantly do.
One more quick thing on the flow of topics in the debate. Several foreign policy wonks complained about the focus: Europe was entirely ignored, and there were no questions about China, and other important issues were also downplayed or ignored. I’m not sure I mind that. As long as the questions are substantive, we get to hear the candidates talk about public policy, and that seems to me to be one of the reasons to have these things. After all, the candidates are all publishing plenty of position papers on all the big issues, and there are still plenty of debates to go for all the questions to be raised.