About Last Night’s Debate

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Michael Scherer does a nifty job of recapping last night’s debate. A few miscellaneous musings of my own:

-How many Republicans tuned in to catch their first glimpse of frontrunner Rick Perry and were stunned by his faltering performance? Hailed for his swagger and brio, the Texas governor was bloodied by a flurry of jabs and struggled to recover. For several long minutes, as rivals pummeled his decision to mandate the inoculation of teens against a virus that causes cervical cancer, Perry seemed punch-drunk, fumbling for the same rhetorical crutch. (“At the end of the day,” being opposed to cancer is not enough for this crowd.) At times, his tangled sentences evoked Sarah Palin — or his Texas predecessor George W. Bush, though there was something many voters found disarming about Bush’s syntactical slips and dogged certainty. Perry can come off as defensive and hard-edged.

The conservative media, which helped anoint Perry, is scanning for a safe spot to hop off the bandwagon should this continue. Perry “could barely compose a sentence without looking as though he might pass out from exhaustion,” wrote John Podhoretz. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin tried to debunk the media’s “self-fulfilling prophecy” that the race for the GOP nod is down to Perry and Mitt Romney. “It simply isn’t true,” she insisted. Politico took its knocks from tut-tutting scribes in wood-paneled boardrooms for headlining a piece “Is Rick Perry Dumb?” If the electorate cared about things like this, it might emerge as one of the cycle’s salient questions. I’m not convinced they do.

Michele Bachmann‘s performance was polished and poised. While Romney–who defended Social Security’s legacy and sprinkled his remarks with SAT words like “patina”–is positioning himself as the anti-Perry, Bachmann is vying to be the Texan’s replacement.

-There is no room for nuance in these debates. The format rewards pithy zingers (at which nobody can match Newt Gingrich) and demands pandering. It’s tough to pull off complex, textured arguments like why America’s belief in its own exceptionalism helped nurture al-Qaeda’s hatred. Rick Santorum baited the congenitally honest Ron Paul into trying to articulate this point, and Paul drew boos for his efforts.

-If you’re going to drop references to grunge rock, you can’t screw them up and expect to win the cool-kid constituency. Every time Jon Huntsman uses a question to gesture to Romney or Perry and point out their failings, he underlines the fact that his podium’s out on the wing of the stage for a reason.

-If swing voters were skittish about the Tea Party, the jaw-dropping burst of cheers at the prospect of letting an uninsured man die rather than receive free medical care is not going to assuage their concerns. Between this and the enthusiasm exhibited over Rick Perry’s execution record at the last debate, things are getting a little blood-thirsty.

The candidates will do it again Sept. 22 in Orlando, when they meet for a third debate in three weeks. For the also-rans, it’s another opportunity to shake up the pecking order. For Perry, it will be a crucial chance to shore up a front-runner status that’s suddenly looking shaky.