Well, for about 74 minutes Rick Perry was delivering his best debate performance since he announced his presidential candidacy on August 13. His grammar was not always perfect, he did not fully flesh out his points, but he was forceful, dynamic and seemingly in command. He deftly bragged of the success of his policies in Texas and did better than ever before in explaining how they related to what he might do as president.
Then came the moment when just about every viewer must have concluded that he ended any chance that he could be a viable candidate: when he couldn't remember the third of the three federal departments he had proposed to eliminate.
My younger colleagues at the Washington Examiner twittered that this was the worst moment in a presidential debate for a candidate they had ever seen. Well, I have been watching presidential debates since the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, and it was the worst moment in a debate I have ever seen too.
"Perry's breathtaking failure to remember his own third department to abolish and Cain's stumbling and inconsistent responses to the charges against him leave a gaping vacuum to fill."
The CNBC questioners cut the tension in the air by directing a softball question-should the Boeing plant in South Carolina unionize?-to Herman Cain. And at his next opportunity to speak, Perry came back lamely by saying the Department of Energy was the third agency he abolished and then, with animation and energy that in the circumstances showed a certain strength of character, gave a pretty good answer to a question on entitlement spending, one in which he avoided mentioning his risible argument that we can solve the Social Security process by allowing state and local governments to opt out of the system (like Galveston County, which did so successfully in the 1980s) and managed to sound strong when he said he would be there for the young people whom the current system would leave high and dry.
But his syntax was more dodgy than in his earlier answers, and in his last opportunity to respond, on higher education, Perry mangled his attempt to mention his actually pretty visionary proposal to create a program in which a college education would cost only $10,000. And he suggested again, as he did earlier in the debate, that he continues to look at issues as if he expected to continue to be a governor after all this unpleasantness is over. This is a man who did not contemplate running for president as recently as 2010, when his book Fed Up! came out and who had seemed content to be governor of Texas and indeed has become the longest serving governor of Texas in history.
It's impossible to believe that Perry wasn't rattled by his astonishing gaffe and I give him credit for not simply dissolving into a puddle on the floor in front of our eyes. But it's hard to see how he can raise his current dismal poll showings, whatever he does henceforward. Suggestion: go on the Tonight Show and make fun of yourself, as Bill Clinton did after his disastrously overlong nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention (his biggest applause line was when he said, "In conclusion"). That appearance helped establish Clinton's reputation as a serious and competent politician who might some day be a plausible candidate for president. But Clinton had three years and some months after that speech before he announced he was running for president. Perry has (according to my calendar) three days till the next debate.
How did the other candidates do? Mitt Romney got called out for "pandering" on his bash-China policies by Jon Huntsman, whose candidacy seems nourished if not inspired by something in the nature of fraternal jealousy of a fellow member of the LDS Church who got to be a plausible president before he did (his ads mocking Romney for changing positions suggest not only political calculation but some deep personal animus, suggestive of Eugene McCarthy's statement that he was a better Catholic than the man who became, rather than him, the first Catholic president, John Kennedy).
Huntsman has a point on policy, but Romney skated ahead pretty smoothly on politics, getting as usual only the slightest pokes for the Massachusetts health care program, so minimal that he didn't feel compelled to deliver his usual nimble though by now robotic defense distinguishing Romneycare from Obamacare. Romney showed a nice sense of command when, in the first segment of the debate, he gracefully declined to comment on the charges of sexual harassment against Herman Cain and Cain's blanket denial of them. He's given his answer, Romney said, and from there it's up to the voters. This seems to have absolved the other candidates of any obligation to give responses in their turn; the CNBC questioners let it go.
The prize of the most eccentric debate questioner of the year, so far, must go to CNBC's Jim Cramer, who nonetheless did not manage to penetrate any candidate's defenses and may have convinced some viewers unfamiliar with his network that he's a bit over the bend himself. As for Cain, after his nine days of making various responses to the various and perhaps variously dodgy charges against him, stuck to his guns boosting his 999 plan and his other standard talking points. I didn't sense he made any conversion, but I didn't sense any significant mistakes either. He seemed to me to be treading water.
Rick Santorum is always interesting and made an interesting case for his zero tax on manufacturing; thankfully he refrained, as he reportedly did not at one point on the campaign trail, from advising married couples that's it's wrong to use condoms. He hasn't gotten any perceptible traction from his assiduous campaigning; he's spoken in all 99 counties in Iowa. It's not clear that any of his opponents will manage to match this more-than-can-be-expected-from-any-reasonable-person feat and, if Santorum does as poorly in the straw poll as he's doing in current Iowa polls, no presidential candidate may ever bother doing so again.
Michele Bachmann was ready with serious, fact-based and (to Republican caucusgoers and primary voters) appealing answer responses to all the questions that came her way.
Ron Paul was, as usual, Ron Paul, with an especially convincing diagnosis of the causes of the higher education bubble which seems on the point of bursting. Government has injected lots of money into colleges and universities, they have responded by raising prices far faster than inflation for three decades and by padding their payrolls with vast cadres of undoubtedly useless if not downright harmful administrators.
And, finally, the guy who seems to be gaining some strength as other falter, Newt Gingrich. The man whom I first came to know as a young firebrand is now Grandpa Newt. He first ran for Congress when Richard Nixon was president and none of his fellow candidates was involved in politics except for the teenage Mitt Romney's cheerleading support of his father's first two campaigns for governor. Gingrich had an electrifying interchange with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo when she asked him to give his solutions on health care in 30 seconds. As an infrequent CNBC viewer, I have to ask, Is Bartiromo always this obnoxious and ineffective at the same time? Gingrich's practice of lavishing praise on his Republican competitors seems to be proving contagious; almost all of them made a point of citing the responses or proposals of at least one of their rival candidates at some point in the debate. Romney still manages, mostly, to skate above controversy, but Gingrich seems, in the course of several debates, to have set the tone for this debate. And, as we used to say in the political consulting business, he who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome of the election. Perry's breathtaking failure to remember his own third department to abolish and Cain's stumbling and inconsistent responses to the charges against him leave a gaping vacuum to fill. Gingrich, with the good luck that heretofore has in this race mostly been the possession of Mitt Romney, has put himself in a position to fill it.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI