Talk about a fall classic.
Tuesday night’s fireworks-filled debate was the final in a series of five high-stakes debates held over a six week period, with a hiatus until the next one in November. The strong impressions left from the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference event should last until then.
Here are POLITICO’s 8 takeaways from the spirited Las Vegas debate:
Mitt Romney is not a Teflon candidate
Romney did not have a bad debate. But his performance wasn’t as effective as in the previous four debates — his best-funded rival, Rick Perry, finally scored points against him.
Perry repeatedly cast the debate rules aside so he could land the blows he wanted — most notably when he turned directly to his rival and bluntly declared that Romney had hired “illegals” to work on his home.
Romney, who’s been so smooth in the rest of the debates, committed a handful of unforced errors in which he looked too calculating — the sin he is most frequently accused of. The former Massachusetts governor denied employing illegal immigrants at first — technically true — but then delivered this line in explaining what he said to the company who employed them at his home: “I’m running for office for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”
He was visibly flustered when Perry interrupted him during the exchange, coming close to losing his temper at one point.
He didn’t actually lose it — but the video replay of the moment, which CNN ran at least twice within 30 minutes of the debate’s end — reflected poorly on him when viewed out of context.
It was inevitable that Romney was going to start seeing some tougher punches from his rivals. He looked strong defending himself when the remarks of an anti-Mormon pastor and Perry backer were discussed, and he made quick work of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in exchanges over Romneycare, which made a sudden reappearance after barely being raised in past debates.
But Romney, the best debater of the field by far, now heads into a roughly three-week period without a chance to take the stage and do what he does best to correct any lingering bad impressions.
Rick Perry’s back in the ring
The on-the-ropes candidate had a dramatic turnaround Tuesday night after three debates during which he almost seemed asleep at times, and barely able to form a sentence at others.
Throughout the debate, Perry supporters said privately that this was the candidate they’d been expecting when he announced his campaign in the summer — the one who demolished Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a 2010 primary that he was initially expected to lose.
After those messy debate performances, the race stopped being Perry’s to lose. But he showed more than a pulse tonight, something that will make donors — and voters — who’ve gotten skittish about him give him a second look.
There were certainly moments when Perry made clear how much he likes going for the jugular, a quality that doesn’t always wear well in debates. He got booed by the Romney-friendly debate hall crowd a number of times.
Perry’s also still given to the occasional brain bubble as he’s talking — one of them caused some fairly mumbled filibustering about religion.
But he is now going to be able to paint himself again as a Romney alternative — the first rung on the ladder in climbing back toward running a competitive race.
Herman Cain likes fruit, if not details
No one rode into the debate with higher expectations than Cain, and it’s safe to say he fell short of them.
He wasn’t bad enough to lose any support but Cain had considerable trouble explaining the finer points of his ubiquitous “9-9-9” plan.
The plan itself became a punching bag for the first 20 minutes of the debate, as Cain’s six rivals on stage took turns taking a whack at the math behind the concept.
Cain responded that his opponents were comparing apples and oranges in their breakdowns, and smartly directed people to his website for his own assessment of his plan’s savings. There was one big problem, though: His website was down, and a metaphor was instantly created.
Cain also got tripped up in talking about foreign policy — by his own words. Moderator Anderson Cooper pressed him about his comment earlier Tuesday that he would trade hundreds of Guantanamo Bay captives (read: accused Al Qaeda members) for an American prisoner, and he insisted he hadn’t said that.
Cain has been running an unconventional campaign so far, and so his poll numbers may continue to defy gravity for awhile. But without any additional evidence of his command of the issues, he underscored the growing sense that he will not be in the hunt for the nomination over the long haul.
Ron Paul wants to cut funds from an early state
And that would be the Jewish state of Israel, which most of the GOP field has made a point of pledging allegiance to throughout the race.
The Texas congressman said he would like to see aid cut to Israel, saying U.S. dollars “teaches them to be dependent” and stymies free decision-making.
While his message may not be popular with some members of his own party, it’s hard to call Paul, a libertarian focused on smaller government, inconsistent.
Michele Bachmann is back to talking points
The fallen frontrunner shed some of her mental notes during last week’s Bloomberg News/Washington Post debate, and it served her well. In Las Vegas, she had real moments of authenticity and was on-point on the topic of the day — the economy.
While the Minnesota congresswoman fared well by dinging Cain on “9-9-9,” it started to unravel later on.
At her worst moment, Bachmann was the buzzkill during a round of criticism over Romneycare. Instead, she turned the issue to Obamacare, the moment was lost, and Romney was able to move on.
Bachmann, who had steered clear of playing gender politics for much of the beginning of the race, also gave a lengthy shout-out to “the moms” who were watching at one point. It didn’t quite work, and felt off-key.
Rick Santorum is sticking with family values
The former Pennsylvania senator talked about faith and family values as frequently as possible, playing to his base of support in the Iowa caucuses.
He was aggressive and scored points, especially in the beginning of the debate, where he went hard at Romney over health care — even borrowing an attack from Perry over a deleted passage in the former Massachusetts governor’s book.
But Santorum continues to talk about winning purple-state Pennsylvania as if it’s something he did recently, when he lost his last race by a lot, five years ago.
The field is struggling with the tone on immigration
The tone of the conversation about immigration went very hard-line, as it has in the last few weeks — a fact that concerns some Republicans and Hispanic GOPers, who fear it will leave the nominee vulnerable and unable to pivot to the center in the general election.
Romney, mindful of that, tried to draw a line between illegal immigration and those who legally enter the country.
It was a smart play in a state with a large Hispanic population, but it came somewhat out of nowhere, and no one else was willing to join him in the midst of a fight where he was getting kicked hard on that very topic.
TARP is still an issue
And not one that everyone has a clear answer for.
Cain and Perry, especially, were on the ropes about whether they had supported the program in the past (Cain says he supported it and then changed his mind, Perry insists he never did).
But Paul immediately debuted an ad on the issue midway through the debate.
It remains to be seen how strongly it resonates, but at minimum the TARP issue could taint the fiscal conservative credentials of a few candidates. Based on their debate answers, they haven’t figured out quite how to address it.
Even in Nevada the calendar is not debate fodder
Despite expectations that it might surface, the fight between Nevada and New Hampshire over caucus and primary dates, respectively, did not come up once.
This was a positive development for Romney, given that he is under serious fire for refusing to follow the boycott of the Nevada caucuses that some of the candidates are taking part in.
The issue isn’t over by a long shot, but all the hopefuls were spared from the problem of talking about it in front of a national audience.
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