A few observations:
1. It was not a scintillating presidential debate. One of the biggest surprises for most viewers came in the form of the discovery that they actually had Bloomberg TV on their cable systems. That’s not a great sign.
There are plenty of recaps around of the blow-by-blow so I won’t rehearse all that (but Ed “Kilroy” Morrissey, who actually managed to appear in one of the video pieces, has a good one and NRO has a very good symposium).
2. For me, the big takeaway from the debate is that it confirmed the story arc of the last few weeks. Rick Perry is fading, Herman Cain is surging (some might say peaking) and Mitt Romney is the only guy in the race who looks both ready to be president and eager to be president.
That, I think, has been Rick Perry’s biggest problem. A lot of punditry on the right and in the mainstream media has focused on Perry’s alleged apostasy on immigration and the bizarre political riot over his policy of (almost) mandating Gardasil vaccinations for the HPV virus for young Texan girls. And while such criticisms (at least from the right) are for the most part sincere and substantial, they’re also exaggerated because of the partisan climate.
Regardless, none of these issues were—or are—insurmountable in their own right. It’s just that Perry entered the race unprepared to answer questions about them, never mind attacks. What has come through about Perry is that he hasn’t spent years plotting, thinking, maneuvering to be President of the United States. I think this speaks very well of his character. But it is also a major liability when going up against a guy like Mitt Romney, whose definition of relaxation is to do extra credit homework assignments.
Last night was Perry’s best performance insofar as he made few mistakes and had some solid answers. But he still looked like his heart isn’t it. He rarely interrupted, intruded or commanded the attention of the table or the audience. People who want to be president and know what they think—or know what they should say they think—barge in and make themselves heard. Winners always want the ball. Perry seemed like he didn’t want to play. That’s deadly for him because the only thing the base of the party wants more than a full-spectrum conservative is any conservative who can beat Obama. If he doesn’t show he has the fire in the belly, his positions don’t matter.
Unfortunately, Perry seems to still think he has a Romney problem. He doesn’t. He has a Perry problem. And he won’t fix his Perry problem by aiming negative ads at Romney. His lost supporters haven’t gone to Romney. They’ve gone to Gingrich, Santorum and, most of all, Herman Cain.
3. As for Mr. Cain, what’s not to like? Well, for starters, (as Jim Pethokoukis notes below) his 9-9-9 plan. But Cain did just fine last night. He didn’t get flustered. He didn’t back off. And he has one thing that no one else in the field has. He’s sunny.
It’s amazing. For all the talk among conservatives and Republicans about how we need another Reagan, Cain is the only one who seems to understand that being upbeat, happy and joyful is hugely important. Everyone else in the field (with the slight exception of Gingrich who you can at least tell enjoys being on stage), is either mean, angry, whiny, defensive or too self-serious. I doubt its calculation on Cain’s part. He’s just a happy warrior and that goes a long, long way.