After six months of debates, it was high time that at least 90 minutes of the country’s popular political reality show be devoted to the primary responsibility of the presidency: foreign policy. The results of the aptly-named “Commander-in-Chief” debate broadcast on CBS did not revolutionize the race. Mitt Romney is still in the strongest position of any of the candidates. A good sense of humor can’t revive Rick Perry’s hopes and strong performances from Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann won’t get them into contention. But it did illustrate that Herman Cain’s weaknesses can’t be disguised forever by his unflappable temperament.
The debate illustrated again that the divide in the GOP presidential field on foreign policy is between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t. A clear grasp of war and peace issues won’t transform Rick Santorum into a first tier candidate from an also-ran. But his lack of command of the issues does make it difficult, if not impossible, for Herman Cain to put forward a plausible argument for himself as a potential president.
This was Cain’s most subdued performance yet in any of these debates and the first time he went the whole evening without letting loose with one of his standard crowd-pleasing one-liners. While it must be admitted that he’s come a long way from the comical ignorance he displayed on this topic when he began his campaign, he still came across as the weakest of all the contenders. His supporters may pretend this isn’t a big deal, but most voters understand that he is on thin ice when it comes to war and peace issues. Coming as it did in the week when his candidacy was assailed by sexual harassment charges, this was a case of very bad timing that may help speed his descent in the polls.
Romney emerged from the evening again looking good because of his ability to put forward a coherent critique of Obama’s foreign policy and a vision for his own presidency. Newt Gingrich illustrated why these debates have been so good for him. His professorial tone was perfect for this discussion, and while his boomlet may be a function of the fact that few in the press have taken him seriously since his campaign began so disastrously back in the spring,, tonight’s debate won’t hurt his numbers.
As for Rick Perry, one can’t help but think that if he were this animated and informed back in the first debates in which he appeared back in September, his campaign might not be on life support. But there’s no turning back the hands of time, and even if the Texas governor deserves credit for a fairly good performance tonight (though he undermined his dwindling band of pro-Israel backers with comments about foreign aid) and for having a sense of humor about his infamous gaffe in Wednesday’s debate, he’s still dead in the water.
As for Bachmann and Santorum, both showed that they knew what they were talking about even if they were struggling for the attention of the moderators as they have for months. John Huntsman and Ron Paul may have been articulate but they also showed that their isolationist stance would get a better response in a different political party.
With only seven weeks to go before the first votes begin to be counted, tonight’s GOP debate did nothing to alter the basic political equation of the race. The field is crowded with conservatives who have failed to emerge from the pack. While Cain still has strong support and Gingrich’s numbers are rising, neither has enough backing or a strong enough rationale for their presidential hopes to seize control of the race. As far as Perry’s candidacy is concerned, he’s still a dead man walking. Santorum and Bachmann are too far behind to make an impact. Huntsman and Paul are irrelevant.
That leaves Mitt Romney; the most polished and well-rounded of any of them, as the most likely nominee of the bunch. Conservatives may still be reluctant to back him, but this debate, like the last few, have done nothing to alter the basic math of the race. With Cain falling back in the pack, Romney remains the candidate to beat.