Thursday, September 22, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on September 22nd?

Tonight's debate was Rick Perry's last chance to prove that he can get through a debate without taking damage. By the end of the debate, the verdict was somewhat clear. Perry did not make any major stumbles, but he was damaged more than he was helped by the debate. As a result, it seems likely that future debates will be more harmful to Perry than helpful. One more debate might not make much difference, but there are many more of them to come. Perry's support is bound to decline. Mitt Romney will be the chief beneficiary.

Perry was attacked for his stance on Social Security (which he backed away from), but particularly on illegal immigration. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both savaged Perry for supporting tuition discounts for illegal immigrants. Santorum also attacked Perry for refusing to support a fence on the U.S.-Mexican border. Perry responded well at first, but seemed to crater as the attacks continued.

Perry employed an interesting strategy: Going on the offensive against Romney. Time and again, Perry attacked Romney. He did this despite the fact that Perry is not attempting to run in Romney's stronghold of New Hampshire. Apparently Perry realized that the best way to bolster his own conservative credentials was to contrast himself with Romney's ostensibly more moderate positions.

When Romney and Perry debated, Romney generally did better. He did not crush Perry in their one-on-one interactions, however. Perry smartly put Romney on defense; Romney is better on the offense than defense. But Romney easily brushed aside Perry's attacks on Romneycare, and Romney counter-attacked fairly well.

Mitt Romney decided not to pick fights with Perry. Instead, he attacked Barack Obama. Romney did better in presenting himself as an aggressive conservative than in previous debates; he seems to be improving, despite the attacks from Perry.

Michele Bachmann again attacked Perry on the HPV vaccine, but she took few opportunities to attack Perry otherwise. Bachmann seems to have a real difficulty in staying focused. As with the debate on September 7th, Bachmann was inconsequential most of the time. Unlike Santorum, Bachmann didn't have a strategy.

The minor candidates needed to find a way to break through. Rick Santorum had the stand-out performance, especially when he went on the offensive against Perry. Santorum has polled nearly 0% thus far, and he's probably hoping to be the next Mike Huckabee, a candidate who came from nowhere due to good debate performances. Santorum should be helped by his debate performance tonight, but he will need to keep it up if he intends to dethrone Perry in Iowa.

In the final analysis, the debate primarily helped Santorum for what he did, and helped Romney by default. Romney debated well, but he took heat from Perry. That's unhelpful to Romney, but Perry was hurt more. Since Romney is primarily in competition with Perry for the "frontrunner" title, the debate was a net benefit to Romney.