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Five Takeaways from the GOP Presidential Debate Five Takeaways from the GOP Presidential Debate

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Politics / ANALYSIS

Five Takeaways from the GOP Presidential Debate

photo of Ronald Brownstein
September 12, 2011

Missed Monday night's one-hour, 52-minute clash of the GOP presidential candidates? Here's a quick rundown:

 

  1. The most important development in the debate was the emergence of attacks on Texas Gov. Rick Perry from the right led by Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Both have more conservative credibility than Romney to criticize Perry over issues like mandatory vaccination of middle-school girls against HPV, a virus linked to cervical cancer, and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. The fact that the audience which had lustily cheered Perry earlier booed his immigration answer signals headaches ahead for him on the issue.
  2. Next most important was the return of Bachmann. Maybe it's too late to recover the ground she's lost to Perry since her victory in the Ames straw poll, but she reestablished herself as the true-north conservative in the race upholding the uncompromising line against all rivals -- not only Perry on the mandatory vaccination and immigration, but Romney on health care. Her decision to criticize Perry on the HPV vaccine not only on ideological but ethical grounds -- denouncing it in a release as an example of “crony capitalism” (the same phrase Sarah Palin highlighted in her Labor Day weekend tour) -- showed an instinct for the jugular that Bachmann appeared to have lost in recent weeks.
  3. Perry once again was stronger on offense than defense, especially on the issue of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. As in his first debate, Perry was strongest when he was able to tee up ringing affirmations of conservative principle -- like a tennis player who delivers a booming shot when he can run around to his forehand. But also as in his first debate, Perry has seemed less steady elsewhere on the court. His answer on Social Security opened up more questions rather than closing off the issue, as his USA Today op-ed attempted to do. And his overstatement on the Obama stimulus -- arguing that it did not create a single job -- showed his tendency toward unequivocal declarations that inspire the GOP base but may ultimately strike some swing voters as excessive or simplistic -- sort of like a forehand blasted past the baseline. 
  4. The internal dynamic of the GOP race is, at an accelerating pace, pushing the candidates toward positions and rhetoric that may cause general election challenges. Two vivid examples tonight: the hard line on immigration (an impending hurdle with Latinos who are otherwise cooling toward President Obama); and Perry and Romney each accusing the other of wanting to eviscerate Social Security. Even if Perry wins the battle in a primary among GOP voters who don’t blanch at calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” Romney is laying down arguments on the issue that could hurt Perry as the nominee. It won’t be easy for Obama to regain the ground he has lost among white seniors against any Republican, but the combination of Republicans questioning the legality of Social Security and endorsing the House GOP plan to convert Medicare into a voucher-like program may give him a better chance than he could ever have hoped for. More broadly, the tea party is a powerful force in the GOP, but it has substantially lost ground with the country overall since the debt ceiling debacle -- and the debate was a reminder of how strong a magnetic pull the movement will nonetheless exert on the Republican field this year.
  5. It's getting chippy out there. The exchanges are sharper, even nastier as these debates cascade in closer proximity. Perry seemed a bit dazed at the cumulative assault on his state record, and Romney showed the first signs of losing his trademark cool.
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