Wednesday nights Republican primary debate was the first to feature flashy new frontrunner Rick Perry. How'd he do? Reviews are mixed. He had plenty of swag at the start, but he also reaffirmed that he thinks the most popular government program -- Social Security -- is a scam. Mitt Romney, by contrast, looked cool and confident and electable. The other major takeaway from the debate? Michele Bachmann's moment has passed.
It's All About Romney vs. Perry
Michele Bachmann "needed to prove that the GOP contest is a three-person race," NBC News' First Read writes. But she didn't find a way to shine Wednesday night, and has become an "afterthought." In fact, as the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm notes, Bachmann didn't get a question till 13 minutes into the debate.
RELATED: Hooray for the Great 2012 Debates!
Perry's a Weak Debater
The Washington Post's Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza called Perry's answer on global warming "pained." ABC News' Amy Walter writes that Perry was like a boxer with no endurance -- He "comes out strong for the first two rounds, but then runs out of stamina by the later rounds." Romney, on the other hand, was "confident and solid" all night long, Walter writes, making him the winner.
Perry Doubles Down on Social Security as a "Ponzi Scheme"
Ahead of the debate, one of the biggest questions about Perry was whether he'd run away from the position he took in his 2010 book, Fed Up, that social security should be scrapped for a state-level program. He did not. Perry said he'd stand by every word in the book, and The Huffington Post's Jon Ward reports that a "top Perry aide refused, under repeated questions... to rule out the idea that Perry would favor dissolving altogether the 76-year-old program that pays out benefits to seniors."
The Atlantic's Jill Lawrence says that position "makes him a lot more consistent than Romney -- but at a cost." First Read says that Perry's consistency is a strength, but the position is a weakness: "can the eventual GOP nominee say that about the most popular government program? ... As Romney's camp made clear in the spin room after the debate, they see this as their clearest contrast. If you didn't think that the Florida primary (with all the seniors who live there) was going to be HUGE, you now know."
But the Positions Themselves Don't Matter
The New Republic's John B. Judis argues that what Perry said about Social Security doesn't matter. It's how he said it. Judis explains:
It's a matter of attitude. Perry appeared tough, confident, able to deflect criticism, and to fire back when fired upon -- whether over jobs in Texas, or his support for vaccination. When faced with a difficult question, his strategy was to reassert his position on "gettin' America workin' again." He dealt gingerly with questions about social security and climate change, but his statements on these subjects are not going to get him in trouble with a Republican primary and caucus electorate that could cheer lustily when it was announced that during Perry’s governorship, Texas had executed 234 people.
First Read, too, notes that Romney's electability argument -- that Perry can never win with this Ponzi scheme talk --"might ring true for the political journalists, analysts, and strategists watching the debate, but is it something that will motivate the GOP electorate?" Just look at who GOP voters nominated in the 2010 elections -- people like Sharron Angle, who lost to a very vulnerable Harry Reid, and ex-witch Christine O'Donnell.
In fact, if the electability thing mattered, Jon Huntsman would get more notice. Malcolm merely commented that Huntsman looked super tan. The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney note that Huntsman argued that a nominee can't win by being anti-science. First Read observes that line got no applause.
Already Settling for Second?
Malcom notes that Newt Gingrich, who wrote the forward to Perry's book, would happily write another. He suspects that maybe Gingrich is already aiming for the vice-presidential slot. Gingrich, who has spent the last 13 years as a TV pundit, used some of his time to attack reporters for asking the wrong questions. Maybe he wants to preempt any Sarah Palin-esque interview fiascoes.
Ron Paul committed heresy by saying not every single thing Ronald Reagan ever did was perfect and awesome.