The Las Vegas GOP Debate: summary and analysis

With Republicans meeting in Nevada on Tuesday for yet another presidential primary debate, it’s beginning to seem like they’re having another one each week. This Sunday, The New York Times reported that this campaign season’s early debates are drawing television audiences twice the size of those four years ago, leaving us to ponder the possibility that profits are driving the 2012 primary’s dizzying number of debates.

If you’ve been as overwhelmed by the number of debates as many Republicans have been underwhelmed by their quality, and you opted to spend two hours carving a pumpkin or seeing a scary movie instead of watching the most recent GOP debate in Las Vegas yesterday, the following is my summary and analysis:

In its introduction, CNN anointed Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain as the debate’s “top tier,” but mentioned that Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich could be “wild cards.” But just as the media’s coverage disparity between Congressman Ron Paul and every other candidate is not justified by the consistently strong polling Ron Paul has shown this primary, neither is the anointing of Rick Perry– who recently finished fourth behind Paul in a Reuters poll of likely Republican voters– nor Herman Cain who has only in the last week been able to match Paul’s consistent showing in the polls.

Cain might not be able to convince American voters that his much-touted 9-9-9 tax plan will reduce their tax burdens or improve the economy. Other than perhaps the heated exchange between Romney and Perry over immigration (more on that below), the most memorable take-away from Tuesday’s debate was the very first ten minutes of it, in which each candidate, one by one, explained all of the flaws in Herman Cain’s plan. It was brutal. Michele Bachmann summed up the rest of the candidates’ concerns, arguing that it wouldn’t take long for “a liberal Congress and President” to raise 9-9-9 to higher and higher rates as originally happened with the federal income tax.

Mitt Romney won the debate. Judging by their applause, laughter, and even booing down other contenders who interrupted him, the live audience was clearly in Mitt Romney’s corner. In addition to some well-polished talking points, Romney had the most good quips and pithy rebuttals to his opponents. First he won the audience’s approval against Cain’s confusing “apples and oranges” defense of his 9-9-9 plan. Then, in multiple awkward but aggressive clashes with Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, none of which Romney instigated himself, the audience actually booed both Santorum and Perry for persistently interrupting Romney as he gave his answer. But it just might not be enough to shake the now-politically-toxic provisions in “RomneyCare.”

Rick Perry lost the debate. After an already lackluster set of performances in recent debates, Perry really needed to hit a home run Tuesday, but misfired instead with more than one aggressive, personal attack against Mitt Romney, each eliciting audible groans from the audience, as when Perry brought up accusations that Romney had knowingly hired illegal immigrants to work in his own home. Between the negativity, the shouting, and the rude interruptions, both Perry and Santorum appeared petulant, insecure, and unpresidential. Romney appeared entirely unshaken, magnanimous, and presidential.

Everything else was predictable: Michele Bachmann stuck to a disciplined approach of campaigning against Barack Obama in every answer and chumming up the waters for her supporters in Tea Party groups. Newt Gingrich gave typically “Newt” answers: ones that took a broad, cerebral, world-historical view of every question, and is clearly just enjoying the attention more than he seems to care about actually winning. Rick Santorum emphasized his social conservatism and support for “the family unit.” Ron Paul said the same things he’s been saying for forty years now, and in just the same way that never fails to alienate some segments of Republican voters, though he did wow the audience with his recent proposal that would eliminate $1 trillion from the federal budget in year one of his presidency.

Where was Gary Johnson?? [Relevant.]