Thoughts on the Las Vegas debate

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Rick Perry speaking and pointing finger.

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  • Cain's distinction between federal and state #taxes was unclear and was ridiculed by #Romney @MichaelBarone

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  • Perry explains why a border fence is impractical in Texas and argues that his efforts to secure the border were more effective

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  • My guess: no significant damage to #Romney standing, but no step forward either @MichaelBarone

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A fractious rollicking debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas tonight, sponsored by the Western Republican Leadership Conference and anchored by CNN's Anderson Cooper, who asked crisp questions and let the candidates go at each other. How did they do? Some first impressions:

Herman Cain, the leader in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal and Public Policy Polling polls, had a rough night of it. But his 9-9-9 tax plan took a terrific bashing in the first half hour, from Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich, questioned next, was asked if it was a "hard sell"; heresponded, "You just watched it," and then said "there's more complexity than it sounds." (Here as elsewhere I am quoting from notes rather than transcript and so may be making minor errors.) Cain's pleas that viewers read his analysis from Fiscal Associates on sounded defensive, and his distinction between federal and state taxes ("apples and oranges") was unclear and was ridiculed by Romney. After these initial exchanges, Cain seemed shorn of his usual good humor and likeability. My guess: his surge in the polls this month will prove as ephemeral as Michele Bachmann's surge in June and Rick Perry's surge in August.

"My guess: Perry stopped his slide in the polls and may have reversed it." -- Michael Barone

After four poor-to-middling debate performances, apparently someone convinced Rick Perry that he ought to be prepared with aggressive and memorable responses to questions--or non-responses when not asked a question he liked (he noted at one point that while Cooper got to ask the questions, he got to answer the way he wanted). Tonight he was, up to a point. He sounded like a strong conservative ("an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience")Texas governor for the first hour, seemed to flag in the third half-hour, then recovered his energy in the fourth. He told Cain a sales tax was a non-starter in New Hampshire, which has no state sales tax. He bragged about Texas's health care system (more doctors and nurses go to work in Houston's Texas Medical Center than anywhere else in the nation) and, finally, explained that Texas has many uninsured residents because it has so many immigrants, legal and illegal. He was sharp in explaining why a border fence was impractical in Texas and in arguing that his efforts to secure the border were more effective. Asked about foreign aid, he made a crowd- and Republican-primary-voter-pleasing promise to cut funding of the United Nations. But he went too far, I think (and the audience, judging from their boos, thought) when he accused Romney of hiring illegal immigrants; the reference was to a lawn service Romney engaged which hired illegals. He didn't make too many references to his energy plan, as he did in last week's debate, and he promised a new economic program (but why not have it prepared by this debate night?). My guess: Perry stopped his slide in the polls and may have reversed it. But I am reminded of a conversation I had with Karl Rove in 1995 on the presidential candidacy of Texas Senator Phil Gramm. "Phil is too harsh for America," Karl said, adding quickly, "but he's not too harsh for Texas." I think Perry, particularly in his attack on Romney, came off too harsh, even for Republican primary voters.

Mitt Romney, for the first time I can recall in this cycle's debates, seemed to get flustered. He got into shouting matches with Perry and Santorum when they interrupted him and succeeded, but only barely, in showing the sense of command that I think voters seek in a president. But he was forced to get testy and not respond with the laughing insouciance he employed as a riposte to attacks in earlier debates. He got in his usual paeans to his own record of leadership in business and delivered, in slightly revised form, his defense of his Massachusetts health care program and his argument that it wasn't the same thing as Obamacare. His opposition to building the nuclear repository in Yucca Mountain in Nevada left me thinking he is taking care not only to win the early Nevada caucus contest but also has his eye on taking the state's six electoral votes in the general election. My guess: no significant damage to his standing, but no step forward either.

Michele Bachmann seemed to be off by herself, flashing her credential as a tax attorney to attack Cain's 9-9-9 plan, calling for repeal of Obamacare and hailing the Obama administration's exit from its CLASS Act provisons, objecting when Cooper tried to end the debate at the behest, he said, of the campaigns. Some of her assertions are subject to serious challenge, such as her claim that the Fourteenth Amendment's apparent guarantee of birthright citizenship can be overturned by legislation. Some amount to a clearsighted acceptance of facts that most officeholders would prefer to ignore, like her assertion that the number one problem in the world is Iran's determination to develop nuclear weapons. I note speculation in the blogosphere that she's running interference for Romney.

Rick Santorum, impassioned as always, talked once again about the role of the family as the basic building block of society and about the dangers we face if we allow big defense spending cuts. He was aggressive in challenging Romney on health care and Perry on his apparent support for the TARP legislation in fall 2008--perhaps too aggressive. His argument that his record of beating incumbent Democrats in the swing state of Pennsylvania shows he would be a strong general election nominee is undercut--though no one mentioned his out loud--by the fact that he lost his Senate seat there by a 59%-41% margin in 2006.

Ron Paul is--Ron Paul. Interesting points on criminal justice and whether Latinos are treated fairly by border guards and, you have to admit, he stops short of advocating capital punishment for members of the Federal Reserve.

Newt Gingrich. He is making greater efforts to be fair to his opponents than they are to each other: presumably because he knows he's not going to be the Republican nominee and he genuinely does want to see that nominee beat Barack Obama. He was gingerly in his criticism of Cain's 9-9-9 plan, he conceded that it's not fair to charge that Romneycare is just like Obamacare and he ended the debate by implicitly criticizing Cooper for "maximizing bickering."

Jon Huntsman and Gary Johnson weren't participating, because Huntsman is boycotting Nevada (something about its primary schedule) and Johnson evidently didn't meet CNN's criteria. I missed Johnson, who had the best line (stolen from Rush Limbaugh) in the last debate.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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