The GOP presidential debate Wednesday was just the first in a series of fall meet-ups. But it may prove to be the most revealing.
Viewers who tuned into the 105-minute face-off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library got a taste of Rick Perry’s style in his first on-stage encounter with the rest of the 2012 GOP field, witnessed Mitt Romney’s first debate without a solid lead in the polls and the beginning of the end for several candidacies.
Here’s POLITICO’s guide to the takeaways:
Rick Perry is now the clear frontrunner
The Texas governor got the most questions from questioners Brian Williams and John Harris, but he also absorbed the most punches from his competitors. When all the energy is concentrated in one direction, it underscores who is dominating the field - and last night it was Perry who was at the center of attention.
Perry himself acknowledged the focus on him, saying at one point, “I feel a bit like a pinata.”
He didn’t handle all of the hits smoothly. The climate change answer where Perry invoked Galileo remains a head-scratcher and he swung needlessly hard at some targets that were best left alone (other than demonstrating that a punch will be met with a response, the logic of pushing back aggressively on Texas Rep. Ron Paul wasn’t immediately clear). But while he didn’t handle everything flawlessly, he left with one significant accomplishment: he didn’t flop.
Rick Perry won’t apologize for being Rick Perry
For all the talk about softening some of his blunter edges as he transitions to the national stage, Perry made no effort to modulate his language on a range of topics — most notable his “Ponzi scheme, monstrous lie” rhetoric about Social Security.
When questioned on “Fed Up!,” his states-rights manifesto published late last year, Perry sounded at first as if he would back off it a bit. But then he doubled-down, declaring that the program is indeed essentially a fraud.
He expressed no regrets about the number of people executed in Texas on his watch - 234 - and said he believes that Americans understand “justice.” When it came to his shoot-from-the-hip speaking style, he made no apologies: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country,” Perry said.
All of it suggested that, while there will be elements of his political persona that may cause problems for him on the trail, he’s clearly made the calculation that his authenticity is one of his biggest selling points — especially against Mitt Romney.
Don’t expect Perry to make the same mistakes he did Wednesday — if his Texas debating performances are any indication, he will learn from his flaws in this outing to make improvements at the next one.
Michele Bachmann’s window is closing
The Minnesota congresswoman, almost as much as Perry and Romney, needed a strong performance. She did not quite achieve that.
In fairness to Bachmann, she got few questions at the debate. But she failed to make the most of her limited opportunities to establish herself as a presence.
She held her ground on issues like reducing the price of gas to $2 per gallon if she’s president, and called for a full border fence. But she did not manage to out duel Perry or Romney at a moment when she desperately needed to in order to counter the hardening narrative about a two-candidate race.
The good news is that there are four more debates coming up, but Bachmann’s chances to regain a top-tier slot are disappearing.
Mitt Romney’s ready to rumble
After running a Rose Garden strategy for much of the year, Romney arrived at the debate prepped for a fight.
He had rejoinders at the ready when Perry hit his jobs record - both as Massachusetts governor and at Bain Capital - and showed he’s willing to take on the Texas governor head-to-head.
That was something that’s been a major question about Romney heading into the fall debate season, and likely helped him score points for the weeks ahead.
The Romney campaign thinks it’s found Perry’s soft spot
It’s called “Fed Up!”
The Romney campaign has clearly thumbed through the book, and Romney himself quoted from a line in it about Social Security, one where Perry described the entitlement program this way: “By any measure, Social Security is a failure.”
In the post-debate spin room, Team Romney — to a person — thumped the Social Security comments hard as a major looming headache for Perry, not just in a general election but in the primary as well.
“You can’t run for president on talking points, you just can’t do it,” said Romney adviser Stuart Stevens, citing states — including western parts of Texas — where there are heavy senior populations that will not look kindly on Perry’s assertions. “It’s impossible for Rick Perry to change his position…on Social Security.”
This will not be the last time Perry’s views on Social Security are in the spotlight. But while the Romney camp is naturally playing one of the strongest cards it believes it has, it’s worth remembering that time is actually not on their side anymore.
Newt Gingrich thinks media-bashing is a winning issue
The former House Speaker, who won critical raves at the Fox News-sponsored debate in Ames, Iowa last month for criticizing the media penchant for ‘gotcha’ questions, went for a repeat performance in Simi Valley last night.
He cut off Harris’ question about the individual mandate component of both Obamacare and Romneycare, thundering, “You’d like to puff this up into some giant thing!” He accused the media of trying to divide Republicans, and received applause for his call to the field to unite against such machinations.
It’s clearly not just a blustery act. Gingrich seems genuinely angry that the media has wronged him and dismissed his campaign.
He pushed back at last night’s debate in a similar fashion to how he hit Fox News’ Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, his former colleagues when he was a paid contributor to the network.
If he keeps polling well enough to qualify for debates, Gingrich’s new role as media critic is likely to be on display again.
Ron Paul can’t modulate
The Texas congressman, who is polling in third place in some surveys, has bemoaned his treatment at the hands of the mainstream media. At the same time, he did little to move toward the electable center in his debate performance.
He stuck to his stands on why FEMA is an unnecessary agency (despite major devastation that Hurricane Irene brought to the Northeast recently), continued to rail against over-regulation and remained insistent that a hard currency was the way to avoid inflation (currency backed by metal was what should have remained the standard, in his view).
Those are positions that endear him to his fans. But they do not help elevate Paul with the broader electorate.
Still, Paul is getting elevated plenty — unexpectedly — by Perry. The Texas governor has twice hit Paul for criticizing Ronald Reagan this week, once before the debate and once during it, garnering the congressman more mainstream attention than he could get himself.
Jon Huntsman isn’t going to take the gloves off
It’s becoming more and more obvious: the former Utah governor simply isn’t going to aggressively attack his rivals or President Obama. He’s comfortable with his style and doesn’t feel the need to dial it up. He continues to hew to a long-term strategy predicated on winning over independents and establishing himself as an electable, moderate conservative.
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