Tuesday night's Republican presidential-candidate debate in Las Vegas was in many respects the least satisfying of the several to date. It was raggedly produced by CNN, raggedly moderated by Anderson Cooper (the sole moderator), and flitted from candidate to candidate, issue to issue, without approaching coherence.
It lasted two hours which, I thought, seemed like five. (Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was absent from this one, opting to campaign in New Hampshire rather than to debate in Nevada). Perhaps because of its raggedness, though, it surfaced personality traits in the candidates that had not been fully revealed earlier.
As anticipated, new co-frontrunner Herman Cain took fire from all his competitors regarding his 9-9-9 tax reform plan. They congratulated him for attempting such a bold reform but, in the next breath, began to dissect its components. Texas Gov. Rick Perry approached outright condescension toward Cain, offering everything but a head pat, but others maintained respect in their responses. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, maintaining his persona as a seasoned, above-the-battle figure, told Cain he grossly underestimated the substantive and political difficulties implict in his plan.
Gingrich is, in fact, correct. Cain's harshly regressive proposal would be torn apart in a general-election campaign by President Barack Obama and any other spokesperson familiar with economic and tax policy. The plan's seeming simplicity and newness, combined with Cain's sunny, upbeat personality, have helped carry his campaign forward. But as Republican primaries and caucuses near, it will come under increasing fire both in his party and in the media.
The co-frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was attacked again for his Massachusetts health reform plan's similiarities to Obamacare. That, too, was expected. Romney knows public issues far better than Cain and fended off the criticisms, as he had in earlier debates.
The debate was fouled by Cooper's management. Rather than doling out time in relatively equal amounts to the participants, he encouraged back-and-forth conflict betwen the participants, which often became repetitive and attenuated. Only the tax and health issues got any kind of serious exploration. Foreign and defense policy discussion was brief and fragmented. I had to wonder why CNN had not given the moderator assignment to John King or Candy Crowley, both policy- and politically-aware correspondents, or to Cooper, King, and Crowley together. Cooper was out of his element and depth.
The often testy back-and-forth between candidates was revealing, though. Perry drew jeers on a couple occasions as he baited or interrupted Romney or Cain. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also made graceless comments toward several other candidates, trying to enter into extended you-said-no-you-didn't-say exchanges. Perry, still lacking a professional debate performance, flunked again. Under pressure he fell back on familiar Texas conservative positions — hailing energy development as the key to American economic renewal and calling for consideration of "defunding the UN." Romney, as usual, kept his cool and was not diverted from his moderate agenda, although he briefly became flustered as Perry and Santorum badgered him.
Cain, as in previous debates, made it clear that he leaned closest to Romney among the other candidates. If he eventually drops out of the nominating race, Cain would appear likely to emulate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's recent Romney endorsement. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul repeated their usual roles, respectively, as Tea Party and libertarian spokespersons.
At the end of the two hours, I found myself disliking an overbearing, sometimes obnoxious Perry. I continued to find Cain likeable but not ready for national prime time. I could understand Republican conservatives' lack of enthusiasm for Romney but found him the best informed and prepared substantively of all the candidates.
Looking ahead, I could imagine Gingrich playing some senior counselor rule in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign and in any 2013 administration. He, Santorum, Bachmann, and Paul will come out of the process with name recognition and good future lecture fees. Huntsman, the absentee Tuesday night, also is building name recognition for some future political role.
The basic situation among Republicans remains in place: Romney may not be popular with party conservatives but all of the alternatives are political risks and less prepared to be the GOP standardbearer. The race remains his to lose.
TV audiences for this year's GOP presidential debates have been unexpectedly strong as compared to those in 2008. Will they keep growing? A casual viewer would have found it hard to last more than 20 minutes into last night's two-hour show. Several more national televised debates are scheduled before 2012 primaries and caucuses begin. Will audiences continue to grow or, after last night's unsatisfying lemon, begin to fall off? Truly, stay tuned.