The battle for the Republican nomination came into sharper focus last night, as eight candidates took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Moderators Brian Williams of NBC and Politico's John Harris asked far more pointed questions than their counterparts did at the previous two debates. Here, five takeaways:
1. Mitt Romney knows how to land a punch: The contest has narrowed down to a clash between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and the debate reflected that; their exchanges were the liveliest of the night. Romney signaled that his gliding-above-the-fray days are long gone over as he hammered Perry for, among other things, his (needlessly) extreme position on Social Security. “In the book Fed Up! you say by any measure Social Security is a failure,” he said. “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it. Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.” It's clear from last night that Romney will seek to make Perry's great strength –his popularity with the red-meat-eating base – into his greatest liability, by pounding away at the idea that the Texan is unelectable.
2. Rick Perry wont' back down: Not only did Perry defend his position on Social Security against Rommey's attacks; he doubled down on it, calling the program a "monstrous lie" and a "Ponzi scheme." "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country," said Perry. And indeed, that's what the Texas governor brings to the primary race. Rather than backing away from controversial positions - the 2007 executive order mandating that young girls receive the HPV vaccine, for instance - Perry stood tall, looking directly into the camera and defending himself aggressively. Even when pressed by the moderators on his climate change skepticism, Perry stuck to his view that global warming is not necessarily man-made. “The science is not settled on this,” he said, inaccurately.
3. Jon Huntsman's decency-and-sanity approach continues to impress even as it does him no good: The former governor of Utah and Ambassador to China continues to poll at around the same vanishing level as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, but through a combination of evident sanity, intelligence and great hair, he acquitted himself with aplomb and remains a media darling. Huntsman fielded questions like a top-tier candidate, positioning himself as the most rational human on the stage (no great feat, but still). He showed himself willing to buck the party line on issues like immigration and climate change as well (he finds it significant that 98 percent of scientists believe that global warming is real and caused by human activity).
4. Michele Bachmann's run is effectively over: How far we've come since the Minnesota congresswoman impressed during June's New Hampshire debate. Last night, however, she received noticeably fewer questions than Romney and Perry, and appeared in over her head. While Williams and Harris' questions pushed other candidates beyond their usual talking points, Bachmann delivered more of the same: saying the E.P.A. has a "political agenda instead of a scientific agenda;" calling Obama a "one-term president" and slamming "Obamacare;" and, of course, waving around her five biological and 23 foster children. Since her victory at the Ames straw poll in August, Bachmann has lost momentum and supporters to the late-announcing Rick Perry. Hard to see her coming back, however long she stays in the race.
6. Newt Gingrich continues to puzzle: He was at his Newt-iest last night. He lost no time in declaring himself "frankly not interested in [the moderators'] effort to get Republicans fighting with each other," vowing to "repudiate" any new outlets that did so. "Everyone up here is against Obamacare," said Gingrich, adding that the eight candidates were "a team" dedicated to "defeating Obama." Unfortunately for Gingrich, the main purpose of the debate is to pit the candidates against one another, the better to clarify the choices before GOP primary voters. In any event, Gingrich's strategy, whatever it might be, is not exactly working for him.