Presidential debates aren't often interesting, but last night's GOP "standoff" was – a little bit, anyway. It was a little like that final scene in Rounders where Matt Damon draws cowboys and takes out half of Teddy KGB's stack on the first hand. The field did the same thing to Perry last night, taking out one of his legs in his coming-out party.
And just like that Damon-Malkovitch no-limit showdown, the game is basically up once you have a huge advantage. In poker, once you have a huge stack, the rest of the way, all you have to do is lean on the guy, and he falls over.
In politics, it's the same. Once a candidate like Perry comes out of the gate threatening Social Security, the game is up. All you have to do from there is make him say it, over and over again. Romney and Hunstman will obviously do just that. They have the next six months to make sure every elderly and soon-to-be elderly person in America knows that Rick Perry wants to take their checks away.
The other candidates ganged up on Perry last night and attacked him, in essence, from the left, trying to paint him as someone who will take away popular programs. The situation reminded me a little of 2004, when other Democrats suddenly started attacking a surging Howard Dean, calling him a wimp and a socialist who was "too liberal" to win a general election. Hackish grinders like Kerry turned Dean's antiwar stance (which happened to be morally right) into a political albatross, forcing him to own it in every public appearance while highlighting his own army cred.
The move succeeded in part, among other things because the press signed on to Kerry's logic and relentlessly portrayed Dean as a candidate with no chance to beat Bush. But the strategy also deflated the party's base, which violently opposed the war, and left the Dems with comparatively little energy and enthusiasm heading into the general election.
I can see something like that happening here. Romney, if he's smart, can really hurt Perry with exchanges like the ones we saw last night. But if he wins the nomination, it'll be 2008 all over again, with bummed-out Tea Party types holding their noses for Romney/McCain as they go to war against Elvis in the general election.