GOP DEBATE: Romney Poised, Polished; Cain a Contender; Perry Fading but Not Out

Before the Republican candidates debated in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was the front-runner, Herman Cain was surging, even pulling past Romney in South Carolina and Iowa in some polls, and Rick Perry was fading but not nearly out of the race. 

After the debate, nothing changed, except perhaps there is now a bigger gap between Messrs. Romney and Perry. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Romney before the debate, and Romney had two events with Christie during a time when most candidates would be engaging in debate prep.

During the debate, there was no doubt as to why Romney had the time to campaign with Christie.  He turned in his best, most polished, and confident debate performance, brushing off attacks, focusing on Obama and the economy and seeming like a candidate who had twice memorized all the answers a week before the test. 

Going forward, Romney will face three liabilities. First, Romney rarely hits the 40 percent mark in any state or national poll, so it is fair to assume that nearly 60 percent of electorate (perhaps even more because many of Romney’s support is still not “definite”) is still against him, but there may not be enough time for the anti-Romney vote to coalesce around a single candidate. Second, his defense of RomneyCare remains a liability with conservatives. Third, Republicans may still wonder if he is the best candidate to go up against President Barack Obama, given Romney’s multitude of flip-flops on a host of issues over the years.

Romney may not win the GOP nomination by knockout, but he can sure win on points, and his performance at the debate made him seem like a person well on his way to doing exactly that.  In fact, his debate performance may convince some of his skeptics that he may fare more than well against Obama, and there is no doubt that Romney is a stronger candidate after the debate.

Cain was also a winner because everyone discussed his “9-9-9” plan. The more people discuss his “9-9-9” plan the more the general public hears about it. And the more the public hears about it, the more they like it. Cain defended it well, saying the tax code needs to be scrapped, and that is what his plan does. Cain also said that he would call for Congress to impose a two-thirds requirement to raise any of the taxes as a check against Congress. 

At one point in the debate, Cain asked Romney to list off the points in Romney’s 59 point plan, which Romney deflected by saying, “simple answers are very helpful but often inadequate.” 

This may present a contrast between Cain and Romney down the line as Cain frames himself as a “Main Street” executive as opposed to the “Wall Street” Romney. After the debate, on FOX News, Cain said Romney’s plan would replace loopholes with even more loopholes. 

Going forward, Cain will have to figure out how to translate his surge in the polls into actual votes. He will have to clarify his answer on thinking Alan Greenspan was his favorite Federal Reserve Chairman, though in the spin room after the debate, which aired on C-SPAN, Cain said that he was talking about Greenspan’s early years when he was influenced by Federal Reserve Governor Wayne Angell. 

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were predictable.

Gingrich, as usual, was brilliant in the debate.

On the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, Gingrich said that, “I think the people who are protesting on Wall Street break into two groups….One is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people who, frankly, are very close to the Tea Party people and actually care.”

“And you can tell which group is which,” Gingrich said. “The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves. The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it. So let’s draw that distinction.”

And Ron Paul continued talking about moral hazards, railed against Keynesian economics, and said a system in which those who did the speculating got bailed out during the financial crisis is one that is “all messed up.” 

On domestic issues and, to a lesser extent, on some foreign policy issues, the GOP electorate has come close to Paul, but can he bring enough people on board a campaign that is better organized than four years ago and more flush in cash than some of the other campaigns? 

Then there is Rick Perry. He has the organization and the war chest to be the chief anti-Romney candidate. If Cain and Bachmann falter, Perry could consolidate the anti-Romney vote and have more than a viable shot at the nomination. At this point in time though, Perry seems so unsure and unconvincing in the debates that a critical mass of Republicans and conservatives may feel uncomfortable with him carrying their banner against Obama.

If Perry does not change this perception quickly and instill confidence in Republicans that he can articulate the conservative case against Obama even when he could not do so against Romney, his candidacy will be Texas-sized toast. But at this point in time, it is too early to count Perry out by any stretch of the imagination and his stock is still an undervalued one given the quality of the candidates, his Southern roots, and the angst that still surrounds a potential Romney candidacy. 

Lastly, Rick Santorum showed that he may be the candidate that could really start to gain traction in Iowa. In the debate’s closing moments, Santorum smartly linked social and family issues to the economy. 

“The biggest problem with poverty in America, and we don’t talk about here, because it’s an economic discussion … is the break down of the American family,” Santorum said. “The word “home” in Greek is the basis of the word “economy;” it is the foundation of our country … We need to have a policy that supports families, that encourages marriage.”

Santorum said that the poverty rate among families that have a two parent household is 5 percent while the poverty rate among those with a single parent household is thirty percent. 

“We need to talk about an economy that has fathers take responsibility for their children,” Santorum said. “You can’t have limited government — you can’t have a wealthy society if the family breaks down, that basic unit of society. And that needs to be included in this economic discussion.”

Again, the moderators had a liberal bias and questions that would give the GOP candidates room to harshly attack Obama were largely avoided. 

The next GOP presidential debate will be on October 18. It will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada and televised by CNN.