Big Night for Cain, Tough Night for Perry

Frontrunner receives most attacks, boos.

The Republican presidential debate last night may prove to be decisive in the race. Rick Perry received the biggest boos and criticisms, and Herman Cain had a terrific performance that could vault him to the head of the second-tier group, as Michele Bachmann seemed to fade away.

Rick Perry suffered the most in the debate. He was loudly booed by the audience when he defended granting in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, stating that “you don’t have a heart” if you oppose their education. He was less intensely booed when he defended his mandating of HPV vaccinations for schoolgirls, saying he erred on the side of life.

Perry and Mitt Romney accused each other of flip-flopping, and Perry scored points when he said that Romney removed a line about national health care from the paperback version of his book. Perry came off more likeable during this debate, smiling to Romney during their exchange and saying, “It’s like badminton.” He also sparked laughter when he was asked which candidate on the stage would be his favorite running mate. He said he’d want to find a way to “mate” Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, to which Romney responded by saying that he’ll have trouble forgetting that image.

Romney performed very well, but did not have a stand-out moment. Instead, he received less enthusiastic, but more consistent, applauses. He is benefiting as the other candidates focus on bringing down Perry, as they want his spot as the alternative to Romney. The answers that were the most well-received were the attacks on Perry’s record on illegal immigration and that the U.S. mustn’t “allow an inch of space between” itself and an ally like Israel.

Herman Cain had a spectacular night, winning both the loudest and most consistent applauses. He appears to have accepted criticism that his answers lacked substance, and has changed his style in a big way. Chris Wallace’s mere mention of Cain’s 9-9-9 economic plan generated cheers. He had the biggest applause of the night when the moderators mentioned how he survived cancer and that he said he’d be dead if ObamaCare was in place. On foreign policy, he had the strongest line of the discussion when he said, “If you mess with Israel, you’re messing with the U.S.” He only criticized Romney for not proposing a transformation of the tax structure, saying, “That dog won’t hunt.”

Newt Gingrich had a great night, as usual, but was outshined by Cain for the first time. His biggest applause line was when he called for making English the official language of government and offering Pell-type grants to K-12 students to go to schools of their choice. He actually got an even bigger applause when a moderator reviewed whether each candidate previously said that Obama is a socialist and Gingrich’s answer of, “yes, of course” was brought up. Gingrich is tied with Bachmann for third place nationally in two polls and fourth in another, but his growth may be stunted by Cain’s stellar night. Gingrich is revealing his “21st Century Contract with America” on September 29 in Iowa to give his campaign momentum.

If one saw Michele Bachmann for the first time last night, it’d be difficult to imagine her as the frontrunner she once was. It is difficult to recall a moment where she stood out. Since Perry’s entry, she has fallen to as low as five percent in one poll. She toned down her attacks on Perry, criticizing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants without mentioning his name. She again questioned his integrity on the HPV vaccination issue, pointing out that the drug company had ties to his campaign.

Rick Santorum had his best night yet, with his remarks on public sector unions, parental responsibility in education, and especially Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, being very positively received. He clobbered Perry on illegal immigration, packing the strongest punches of the night. He also claimed that Perry supported a bi-national health insurance program with Mexico, and pointed out his non-answer on the question of handling a potential capture of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by the Taliban. Polls aside, Santorum did not appear like a long-shot candidate on stage. He did, however, make a big mistake by incessantly interrupting Perry during their exchange, which was the rudest moment in the debates so far.

Ron Paul’s supporters reflexively applauded his every answer, with his comment about the moral character of the nation being more effective than legislation in handling regulation of the "morning after pill."

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson was finally allowed into a debate, and is likely to steal some of Ron Paul’s support. He got big cheers when he spoke about the Fair Tax and abolishing the Department of Education and joked about a dog creating more jobs than President Obama.

Jon Huntsman made his mark by calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. He sparred with Santorum on the issue, and seemed to win the exchange with, “Only Pakistan can save Pakistan. Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan. America must save America.” Huntsman’s problem remains that he is trying to win by coalescing moderates around his candidacy. It is very unlikely that a moderate will win the primary in this environment, but a poll out of New Hampshire showed him in a surprising third place behind Ron Paul.

The candidates had some fun with the last question of the night. They were asked who on the stage would be their running mate if forced to choose. Romney, Paul, Gingrich and Bachmann refused to answer. Johnson chose Paul. Santorum chose Gingrich. Cain said Romney if he adopted his 9-9-9 plan, otherwise he’d go with Gingrich. Huntsman chose Cain and Perry, as mentioned before, said he’d like to “mate” Gingrich and Cain.

The race may have shifted last night. Perry and Bachmann fell, while Cain, Santorum and possibly Huntsman rose. Gary Johnson may finally become a factor to Paul’s detriment. Gingrich performed well, but will probably suffer as the other second and third-tier candidates exceeded expectations.