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A GOP Debate Post-Mortem

Here are some morning-after thoughts on Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate:

1. Rick Perry’s quest for the presidency is finished, even if his campaign is not. The Texas governor won’t withdraw — and he’s raised enough money to go on for a while. But Perry, desperately in need of a superior debate performance, once again whiffed. He looks like a man who would rather be anywhere on earth than on the debate stage. At this point he cannot undo the damage he’s inflicted on himself; he simply doesn’t have the skill set to do so. Perry will continue to slide in the polls and, I suspect, end up being a fairly marginal figure in the race.

Most of those who proclaimed at the outset that Perry was the Real Deal were at a distinct disadvantage: they hadn’t seen him in action. They were moved by what they thought he was versus who he actually turned out to be. What we’ve learned is that he’s the worst candidate in this particular field. He will take his place alongside a couple of other Texans who flamed out as presidential candidates: John Connally and Phil Gramm.

2. Herman Cain’s 9/9/9 tax plan got a lot of attention, which probably pleases Cain. But clear lines of attack were also developed, especially by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, and they will be exploited. Both Bachmann and Santorum hit Cain on his tax plan’s vulnerability: creating an additional revenue stream (via a national sales tax) without eliminating the income tax. To reiterate something I wrote yesterday: Cain plan will become less appealing the more GOP voters examine his policies.

3. Governor Romney once again turned in an extremely strong performance. He’s fluid and at ease, in complete command of the issues, and seemingly impossible to knock off stride. The most salient political development of this (Republican) campaign season is the extraordinary improvement in Romney as a candidate from 2008. And while I didn’t agree with all of Romney’s positions, including his unwillingness to provide a capital gains tax cut for those making over $200,000 (thereby excluding those who make the most capital gains and undermining economic growth), there’s simply no denying the former Massachusetts governor has become a superb debater. He is easily the most skilled politician in the current field.

Some other observations: Michele Bachmann was strong, particularly early on in the debate (she explained her positions well and with precision), but then faded a bit. Jon Huntsman may (or may not) be a nice fellow in person, but he comes across as very unpleasant. Newt Gingrich showed both his considerable strengths (knowledge of the issues and an active intellect) and weaknesses (a rhetorical recklessness, such as arguing that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd should be put in jail). Senator Santorum once again did well, especially when, in the midst of a back-and-forth with Cain, he asked those in the New Hampshire crowd to raise their hands if they favored a sales tax (none did). And I found Ron Paul to be somewhat less offensive than usual (probably because the subject was economics rather than foreign policy).

I know enough about politics to know it’s too early to declare the next GOP presidential nominee before a meaningful vote has been cast. But I also know enough about politics to know roughly 12 weeks away from the first meaningful votes being cast, Mitt Romney is in a commanding position.