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Debate post-game: Romney hits snags, but still comes out on top

Entering into tonight’s debate, two big questions were on the table: What exactly could Gov. Mitt Romney do to turn his loose frontrunner status in the debates into frontrunner status in the polls? And, is Herman Cain a real viable candidate, or just one last school girl crush for the GOP base? Just like the past few debates, our guys say Romney came out on top.

Matt Berry, Tulane College Republicans

Governor Perry might be toast after tonight.  He clearly understands Romney’s vulnerabilities, but he has not demonstrated a mastery of capitalizing on them. Most of the time you can sort of get the gist of what he’s saying, but it never congeals into articulate points.

Romney is approaching solid frontrunner status. His problem is that he is where he is by process of elimination. He needs to do more than be reasonably articulate and seem reasonably competent. He needs to demonstrate a compelling reason to vote for him. We almost started to see it tonight, in a few moments where he showed some fire. Romney needs to find a way to show passion without seeming petulant.  Appealing to the moderator to restore order does not help this.

Herman Cain was almost a non-entity except when he was giving incoherent answers on foreign policy questions. If this doesn’t finish him off, then the AEI/CNN/Heritage Foreign Policy debate almost certainly will.

I don’t know what the others are still doing there.  Maybe they’re auditioning to be Romney’s running mate (or, in Bachmann’s case, auditioning to play the Demi Moore character in A Few Good Men). Maybe they’re just staying in it to sell books. I am past the point of trying to crack the enigma that is Michele Bachmann, and deciphering Ron Paul is, to borrow a phrase, above my pay grade.

Winner: Romney

Cameron Parker, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

The dramatic flair in tonight’s opening sequence — “Vegas is the place where dreams are made, and crushed” — was particularly apropos given everything that followed.

And it was Mitt Romney who did the crushing.

Both Richards came out swinging tonight. Romney at the throats of Santorum and Perry felt like a genuine Vegas title bout. Besides, entertaining, it was a sign that it’s getting desperate for candidates coveting a top tier position.

Then something amazing started happening that has never happened before. The crowd started taking Romney’s side. Seeing Rick Perry continuously booed by the audience for his ineptly articulated, base attacks made it all the clearer that this race now has a formidable frontrunner. I would say Perry is the Fred Thompson of 2012, except Thompson knew to bow out before he made a complete fool of himself.

None of this should obscure the fact that the first half hour of the debate was devoted to “9-9-9.” Cain is catching serious hell now. It’s clear his proposal raises taxes on many Americans, and the national sales tax element has become a point of weakness the other candidates are perfecting exploiting. The National Review has repudiated the idea, and conservative icon Steve Moore is jumping ship. Cain remains particularly popular, but while incredibly charismatic, he’s clearly in over his head and it’s showing.

Some of the candidates seem to be doing better. Gingrich scores on the Supercommittee, Bachmann has become overall more cogent, and Santorum really reached out to majority-Catholic latinos by stressing the importance of family when other candidates were simply sounding inhumane.

But it’s getting awfully late. Perry and Santorum went all-in tonight with Romney and lost handily. Does it really matter if the others keep playing or cash in early?

Winner: Romney

Aaron Marcus, columnist for the Rutgers Daily Targum

Tonight’s debate was the most heated debate as of yet with Rick Perry and Mitt Romney trading heavy barbs. Unfortunately for the Herman Cain campaign, it seems as if his status as a real deal candidate has been settled and the answer is he is not one.

Cain was unable to adequately defend his 9-9-9-tax proposal and ensure that lower income Americans would not see their taxes raised if it were enacted. He failed to shine through a debate in which Romney and Perry effectively knocked each other out and left the floor wide open for the other nominees.

Newt Gingrich capitalized on this by eloquently advocating fiscal responsibility, strong national defense and common sense reforms to immigration.  He was not afraid to call Ronald Reagan wrong in his trade of weapons for American hostages held by a terrorist organization with ties to Iran.  A feat that few Republicans have the guts to do. He was bold, charismatic, and in my opinion won this debate. Gingrich took advantage of the spotlight intended for Cain and was able to waltz along with little substance but fantastic one-liners.  I am predicting that he overtakes both Cain and Perry as the “anyone but Romney” nominee for Republican Party.

While Romney remains the frontrunner, the GOP base is still searching for any other candidate that can stand a chance against Obama. First it was Perry, then Cain now I think it will be Gingrich. Romney will not secure the front-runner status and affection of the Republican Party until all other GOP hopefuls are eliminated from the primary. Cain however is the ultimate loser of tonight’s for failing to capitalize on “his moment” and starkly contrast his policies with Romney’s.  Herman Cain is no longer running for President of the United States, but Vice President of a Mitt Romney ticket.

Winners: Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney

Jeremy Rozansky, editor of the University of Chicago Counterpoint

After the most mutually bruising debate of the year, it is hard to say for certain who won.  Herman Cain’s strategy for dealing with the critiques of his nines is to say the other candidates don’t know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, most of the critiques are of substance. What he calls the corporate tax is basically a Value Added Tax; his introduction of a national sales tax will be very popular with some “Fair Taxers” and very unpopular with others; his elimination of certain popular tax-expenditures was fleshed out for the first time. Eventually the estimate of the plan and the man with it will tip in the public consciousness against his candidacy.

Mitt Romney had a steady night of the usual pitch perfect answers (though he got hit harder than ever before on Obamneycare and implausibly called for China to lead humanitarian efforts). However, he still seems at a plateau. He merely needs to survive as the frontrunner until more moderate voters begin to pay attention and Cain’s camp suffers its inevitable, sudden attrition. You can see Romney is channeling Cain’s pragmatic rhetoric to win such voters.

The gloss on the debate will be that Rick Perry traded in the prior lugubriousness for an overly offensive mentality and wound up in much the same place as after the previous debates. Going after Romney’s illegal yardworkers, not letting Romney respond, and doing it again made Perry seem desperate and petty, not a potential frontrunner.

Santorum had many terrific answers, overshadowed by his apple-polisher indignance at the poor enforcement of the rules of the debate game. Bachmann needs to not laugh into the microphone or think Libya is outside Africa. Ron Paul vs. Santorum on the question of whether the nation is based on individuals or families was darn interesting, all thirty seconds of it. What is the alternative to Yucca Mountain? Golden Gate Park? (That might actually be a popular Republican position.) What will be Newt Gingrich’s version of the Freeport Question?

Winner: All of us, for being spared Jon Huntsman’s hyperactive eyebrows, grunge jokes, and general angling for the Vogue primary.

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