I’m not intrinsically averse to declaring winners and losers in presidential debates. But there are times when everything is fought more or less to a draw.
Sometimes that results from a sleepy, low-impact debate in which everyone plays to expectations. Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas, feisty and dynamic, was not that. But there are also nights when each candidate has his strong moments and his weak ones, and it may be best to wait a few days to see which gain traction rather than rush to declare a winner. For the time being, then, it may be best to consider each of the candidates’ performances on Tuesday individually.
Mitt Romney. A true draw in the sense of a debate that preserved the status quo — as was arguably the case last week in New Hampshire — would be perfectly fine for Mr. Romney, who is in the strongest overall position to win his party’s nomination. That is a little different, however, from a volatile debate like Tuesday’s, which might compel some voters to change their mind even if it isn’t all in the same direction.
Mr. Romney’s worst moment came when Rick Perry challenged him in a somewhat non-sequitur attack where he accused Mr. Romney of having employed illegal immigrants at his home. The problem was not with the substance of Mr. Romney’s response but with his demeanor. Demonstrative to the point of appearing angry and somewhat red-faced under the stage lights, Mr. Romney grabbed Mr. Perry on the shoulder and seemed on the verge of losing his temper.
Controlled anger can sometimes work in a debate — Ronald Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone” exchange with a reporter in New Hampshire perhaps being the best example of this. But it is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, something that Mr. Romney does not need, and Mr. Romney was responding to a fellow Republican rather than to a moderator.
Apart from this moment, Mr. Romney had a typically strong performance. He endured some attacks on his health care bill — but by this point has become adept in responding to them. That’s not to say that Mr. Romney has no remaining vulnerability on the issue — during some future debate, there will probably be an attack that resonates more than most have so far — but that should probably be priced into his stock at this point.
Sometimes, though, all that voters remember from a two-hour debate is a 30-second clip, and Mr. Romney’s response to Mr. Perry is not one his campaign will want to see played in regular rotation.
Rick Perry. If the squabble over immigration was Mr. Romney’s worst moment, it may have been Mr. Perry’s as well, especially given that Mr. Perry’s accusation was somewhat factually dubious and came on an issue on which Mr. Perry has his own vulnerabilities.
If the attack was poorly executed, however, it is easy to understand why Mr. Perry engaged in it: he again made himself the focal point of attention as the “anti-Romney” candidate. And Mr. Perry, now slumping in the polls, has less to lose by taking a few risks.
The most generous interpretation is that we got the candidate we were expecting all along in Mr. Perry: a gunslinger who throws his share of interceptions but also a few touchdowns. A candidate like this is necessarily going to have his stronger nights and his weaker ones — but at least Mr. Perry was more energetic and appeared to have a stronger aptitude for debating than had been apparent from his recent performances.
Herman Cain. If Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry both looked bad during the immigration exchange, Mr. Cain was the beneficiary of that by default, especially given his characteristically temperate demeanor. But if Mr. Perry re-asserts himself, that may harm Mr. Cain in the long run.
Mr. Cain also stumbled on a question, inspired by an interview he had given to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer earlier on Tuesday, about negotiating with terrorists. And he may be seeing the downside of the increased expectations brought on by his rise in the polls. I thought his responses to the attacks on his 9-9-9 plan at the beginning of the debate (which I caught on replay after tuning in a few minutes late) were decent enough, but Twitter sentiment was far more skeptical. So were betting markets — Mr. Cain’s chances of winning the nomination fell to 7.6 percent from 9.2 percent on Intrade over the course of the debate, more than for any other candidate.
Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich is intrinsically a strong debater. Out of all the candidates on stage, he might have the best idea about how to appeal to both to the immediate audience in the room and the viewing audience at home.
What was more newsworthy, though, is that Mr. Gingrich finally used those skills to attack one of the other Republican candidates — Mr. Romney on his health care bill. Perhaps this is a sign that Mr. Gingrich, whose polls have shown some improvement recently, sees a potential opening at the expense of Mr. Cain or one of other candidates.
It was also noteworthy that Mr. Romney seemed interested in playing along, saying he had gotten the idea of an individual health insurance mandate from Mr. Gingrich. Ordinarily, the rule is not to elevate a candidate who is well behind you in the polls, but perhaps Mr. Romney thinks that Mr. Gingrich represents a benign target — someone who could take a few points away from Mr. Cain or Mr. Perry without being much of a threat to win the nomination himself.
Michele Bachmann. It was Mrs. Bachmann, instead, who played Mr. Gingrich’s usual role as the party cheerleader, deliberately avoiding attacks on the other candidates and instead turning her attention to President Obama at every opportunity. Perhaps this is part of a two-stage strategy to repair her favorability ratings first, which have eroded some even with Republicans, and then go back on the attack later. But she has relatively little time to execute upon it, especially with no debates scheduled until Nov. 9.
Rick Santorum. Like Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum is not lacking for raw political talent — you need some of it (as Mr. Santorum likes to remind us) to get elected as a staunch conservative in a swing state like Pennsylvania. Still, if Mr. Santorum’s execution was strong again on Tuesday, he hasn’t really found a way to shift the debate back to social issues, his major competitive advantage over the rest of the field.
Ron Paul. Objectively, it was a strong debate for Mr. Paul, whose answers were more pointed, concise and on-topic than usual. Nevada was a good state for Mr. Paul to have turned in one of his stronger performances as he fared well there in the caucuses in 2008.
At the same time, the questions posed to Mr. Paul — particularly on the Wall Street bailouts and the role of faith in politics — tended to draw upon more of the liberal side of his libertarianism and are likely to have done little to make the Republican establishment any less skeptical of him.