Oh Swagger, Where Art Thou?
For evidence of Texas governor Rick Perry's rapid collapse, look no further than recent surveys of Republican presidential voters. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, only 15 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents support Perry, down from 31 percent in September, and 29 percent in August. Likewise, Public Policy Polling found Perry's support plummeting among Republicans in Iowa and North Carolina, states with large evangelical populations that should be friendly to the governor.
Last night's presidential debate was Perry's chance to show Republicans that they can trust him with the party's nomination and make up for his prior poor debate performances. He failed on both counts. Even in the subdued roundtable exchange, Perry evaded questions, stumbled over answers, and fudged attacks against his opponents. When he tried to land an attack on Mitt Romney's health-care plan in Massachusetts, Romney twisted it into a critique of Perry's governorship. "We have the lowest number of kids -- as a percentage -- uninsured of any state in America. You have the highest," Romney responded. "You have a million kids uninsured in Texas -- a million kids. " That Perry couldn't even stammer out a response to this is a clear demonstration of his terrible debate skills.
Mitt Romney, in contrast, did nothing but improve his position with last night's debate. Romney isn't a good debater -- he has a tendency to ramble -- but he's more practiced thanks to his prior experience in running for president. He also benefits from his position vis a vis other candidates; because the rest of the field is running to distinguish themselves as the alternative to Romney, they're more focused on attacking each other than the former Massachusetts governor. It's why Michele Bachmann, for example, saved her sharpest attacks for Rick Perry: "You went on to increase spending in Texas by over 50 percent, and you financed that spending by increasing bond debt by over 137 percent. ... How can we trust you to not go down the Obama way and overspend and pay for that spending with indebtedness on the backs of the next generation?"
The only candidate to focus on the front-runner was Herman Cain, who has emerged as the most popular of the Romney alternatives. But for the first time, Cain was also the target of criticism. Both the candidates and the moderators pressed him for details on his "9-9-9" plan -- a tax plan which replaces the current code with a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax, and a 9 percent flat tax on goods and services -- and he managed to answer most questions, if not without some difficulties. When presented with an analysis by Bloomberg Government finding that his plan would reduce revenue that could only be recouped with high taxes on food, medicine, and other necessities, Cain demurred: "The problem with that analysis is that it's not correct." Throughout the night, Cain was strongest on questions where he could stick to his script, and for the most part, it didn't take much for him to turn each question into a showcase for the 9-9-9 plan. When asked what he would do to break partisan gridlock, for example, he made a strong pitch for his plan instead of answering the question. Cain never faltered, and with his clear and straightforward rhetoric, he's likely to remain a favorite for those opposed to Romney.
Overall, this debate did little to change the status quo in the Republican presidential primary. Mitt Romney is still the front-runner, and Herman Cain -- even with his newfound popularity -- is still a long shot for the nomination, along with the other candidates -- Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman -- who remain on the margins of the contest. With $15 million in the bank and an established campaign organization, Rick Perry is still a formidable candidate and remains the only plausible alternative to Romney. But his campaign is still bleeding, and he isn't doing himself any favors with his poor debate performances.
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