Tonight’s debate in Las Vegas was clearly the most spirited and most entertaining of all the Republican presidential debates so far. But aside from the opening sequence in which the entire field jumped on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax scheme, the main event of the evening was not much different from the last debate in which frontrunner Mitt Romney was attacked from all sides. Though Cain was the media’s flavor of the week, his rivals seemed convinced Romney was still the man to beat in the GOP race.
Romney’s patience and endurance was tested to the limit as he was subjected to a series of vicious attacks on immigration, health care and jobs policy. But Romney, who has emerged this year as one of the most polished and able political debaters in recent memory, ended the evening still on his feet without any of the others able to say they had floored him.
The nastiest attack came from Rick Perry, who seemed to be a different man than the sleepy and unfocused performer in four previous debates. Perry was much improved over his previous tries, but that is not the same thing as saying he helped himself all that much. Perry’s aggression was certainly what his team wanted to see, but he overreached when he repeated a smear about Romney personally hiring illegal aliens. That charge fell flat in the face of Romney’s explanation, and it didn’t help that Perry kept repeating it. It was an obvious attempt on Perry’s part to distract conservatives from his more liberal stands on illegal immigration. It’s doubtful many bought it.
Later in the debate, we were reminded of Perry’s previous debate problems when he attempted to make a point about the United Nations and its role in facilitating Palestinian efforts to evade the peace process. Perry knew what he wanted to say but couldn’t quite spit it out and wound up sputtering when he could have made a strong argument. Even at his best, and this was the best we’ve seen of him, Perry still doesn’t sound presidential or that focused. He may get a bump in the polls, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever retrieve the lead he lost last month.
As for Cain, he weathered the gang tackle of the field on his 9-9-9 plan with good humor, but there’s no denying by the end of that segment, his plan was poked full of more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. Mitt Romney concluded the assault by pointing out the illogic of his claim that taxes wouldn’t be increased in many states. Cain’s stubborn defense on a point he clearly misunderstood left him looking foolish. In the end, he had to settle for a condescending rhetorical pat on the head from Newt Gingrich praising him for a nice try, and Romney gave him credit for chutzpah. But Cain’s moment in the spotlight did him little good.
The main conclusion to be drawn from the evening is that despite all the focus on Cain, it is still Romney who is ahead.
That isn’t all good news for him, because it means the field will continue to expend most of their ammunition on attempts to undermine him. Romney is vulnerable on health care because of the clear link between his Massachusetts plan and Obamacare. But as has been the case with past debates, his skill on defense and his ability to turn the tables on his opponents if given the slightest opportunity stood him in good stead. Romney isn’t loved or trusted by either Tea Partiers or social conservatives, but the failure of any of his more right-wing opponents to emerge as a viable alternative has put him on the fast track to the nomination.
This evening was feistier than the previous debates and rougher sledding in many ways for Romney. But it merely confirmed the same conclusion: despite the fireworks, this race is still Romney’s to lose.