Monday, September 12, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on September 12th?

As the second Republican primary debate in less than a week, tonight's event served as a sort of re-match for Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Who won this time, and were the other candidates, like Michele Bachmann, able to make any progress?

Perry and Romney were more evenly matched when they debated each other. Perry was more confident and sure-footed than his first debate performance, but Romney was also strong. Romney was more articulate and specific in his answers; Perry at least staunched the bleeding from the last debate. But Perry was harmed far more by his exchanges with other candidates.

As Elephant Watcher anticipated, Perry's first big test was how to deal with the fallout from his "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" remarks. Perry explained that he felt Social Security as it is currently designed will ultimately fail, and that something needs to be done to fix it. This is the response he should have given last time. Perry toned down the overheated rhetoric of the previous debate. He was clearly on the defensive, but he was much more able in this debate.

Romney chose to go on the offensive against Perry. He asked Perry about the assertions in his book that Social Security is unconstitutional and should be transferred from the federal to state government. Perry was unfazed and gave as good as he got. Romney erred in attacking Perry so directly; it made him look negative.

Romney was asked about Romneycare, just as he has in all his previous debates. Debate moderators do not seem to tire of asking him about it. Romney gave a strong response, contrasting Romneycare with Obamacare. Perry and Michele Bachmann criticized him, but they were no better prepared than before, and Romney won the issue.

During the September 7th debate, Bachmann declined to attack Perry. This time, she went on the offensive. She offered a sharp critique of Perry's attempt to require girls to take a vaccine for a cancer-causing STD. Perry attempted to explain that the program allowed parents to "opt out," but he did not get the point across. Bachmann, along with Rick Santorum denounced him for trying to "force girls to take an injection." Perry was shaken.

Bachmann and Santorum also joined forces to attack Perry on immigration policy. They accused him of supporting illegal immigrants by providing subsidies for their college education. Perry was booed by an otherwise friendly audience.

Newt Gingrich once again won great applause by saying that Barack Obama scares Americans far more than Perry or Romney. But Gingrich again failed to explain why he should be president instead of the other candidates. He really needed to go on the offensive, despite the risks, because he needs to bring the "major" candidates down to his level. Gingrich arguably had the best answers of any candidate, but if he's not considered in the running, it won't do him any good.

Jon Huntsman gave a stronger debate performance than in the two previous debates. He gave a clear argument for why he should be chosen over Perry and Romney: Utah--when he served as governor--had the highest job growth rate of any state in the country. But like the other "minor" candidates, Huntsman needs to find a way to get himself into the top tier before anyone will pay attention.

What was the overall impact of the debate? While Perry healed some of the damage he inflicted upon himself regarding Social Security, new wounds were opened by Bachmann and Santorum's attacks against his conservative credentials. If they can keep up the attacks, Perry will need to fight a war on two fronts. As Perry lost, Romney gained by default--and by a disciplined debate performance. Bachmann has a long way to go toward bringing down Perry in Iowa, but she may realize that she scored some points by attacking him. Perry needs to be concerned going forward, as the debates have not been good to him.