The Gloves Are Off

Angry exchanges at the latest GOP debate.

Last night’s Republican presidential debate was the most substantive and the most confrontational. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan was attacked by every one of his competitors, and aggressive attacks on Mitt Romney by Rick Perry and Rick Santorum were not received well by the audience. The polls will probably change significantly in the coming days as a result of the event.

Herman Cain was target number one. Every single person on stage ridiculed his 9-9-9 plan in a pile-on that must take a toll on his poll numbers. He repeatedly told viewers to go to his website and evaluate the math themselves. Rick Santorum claimed that 9-9-9 would raise taxes on 84% of taxpayers and criticized its elimination of tax breaks for families. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney said it would raise taxes, hurt the middle class, and unwisely give the government the power to enforce a national sales tax. Ron Paul called 9-9-9 “dangerous” and “regressive.” Newt Gingrich said it isn’t as simple as portrayed.

Cain had some good moments in defending his plan, such as when he said that Americans currently have to pay five invisible taxes on a loaf of bread, and 9-9-9 would replace it with one visible tax. His comment that it would throw out a “10 million word mess” was well-received, as was his criticism of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters. He said his critics were confusing apples and oranges, particularly when Romney asked him if it would add a sales tax on top of a state tax. Audience members enjoyed it when Romney said it would therefore force Americans to pay for apples and oranges.

Cain again stumbled on foreign policy. Anderson Cooper mentioned his statement in an interview that he’d potentially support an exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners for an American hostage. He says he misspoke. He did not give an answer about the Israeli prisoner exchange with Hamas for Gilad Shalit, opining that we shouldn’t judge it because we are not in the Israeli Prime Minister’s position. Altogether, it was a rough night for Herman Cain and he is likely to lose some of his support to one of the second-tier candidates.

Mitt Romney was the second most-attacked candidate, but performed better than Cain. None of the criticisms were new, and they have already been part of Republican voters’ evaluations for a long time. In fact, the audience reaction to attacks on him seemed to work in his favor. First, Rick Santorum went after him on health care and when Romney tried to answer, he was incessantly interrupted by Santorum, who then said, “your time is up” before Romney even had time to reply.

Second, Rick Perry was booed when he mentioned Romney’s accidental hiring of a lawn service that employed illegal immigrants, saying he was at the “height of hypocrisy.”  Romney tried to defend himself but Perry repeatedly jumped in. Romney lost his cool and with a red face, raised his voice and put his hand on Perry’s shoulder. In his reply, he knocked Perry for approving in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and the crowd went wild. The audience reaction showed that Romney won the exchange, aided by sympathy caused by the rudeness towards him.

Rick Perry seemed much more confident and lively and got off to a good start by calling himself the “authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience.”  As the debate progressed, he became more inarticulate and lost his momentum, but he improved enough that some feel he won. His biggest moments were when he mentioned that the U.S. is sitting on 20 years' worth of energy resources and declared energy independence a priority, and when he called for a discussion of whether to defund the United Nations.

Newt Gingrich climbed into third place nationally and in Iowa and in Florida before the debate. As usual, most of his lines won a huge applause. His biggest moments were when he called for holding three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with President Obama and explained why he’d be concerned if a president didn’t have faith and didn’t pray. Evangelicals will like his answer, but it’s doubtful they will overlook his marital history.

For the first time, Gingrich criticized other candidates, specifically Herman Cain and Mitt Romney. He made a point of applauding Cain for proposing a bold and specific idea and said that it is incorrect to equate Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts to Obama’s. However, he said that Romney’s plan was still a form of big government. Romney replied that he got the idea for an individual mandate from Newt Gingrich, which he angrily protested as being a falsehood. Gingrich did admit that he supported an individual mandate, and that could stunt his growth.

Michele Bachmann appeared very intelligent and substantive. She had the strongest answer on foreign policy, criticizing President Obama’s deployment of 100 special forces to Uganda and involvement in Libya. She said that the Iranian terror plot and Iraq’s refusal to grant immunity to American forces were direct consequences of the U.S. not being respected. However, she still came off more like a cheerleader at times by proclaiming the inevitability of President Obama’s defeat, rather than a presidential candidate.

Rick Santorum did serious damage to his long-shot candidacy. His unprofessional badgering of Mitt Romney caused the audience to sympathize with his opponent, and put him in a very unfavorable light. His biggest moment was when he talked about the importance of protecting the family unit and the importance of faith in government.

Ron Paul had a big applause when he told the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters to demonstrate against the Federal Reserve and said that his rivals were erring by talking about replacing the income tax. Instead, he would replace it with nothing. His proposal to cut $1 trillion in spending was cheered, but the fact remains that Ron Paul represents a specific niche that will not grow any further during this campaign.

The debate will almost certainly bring down some of Cain’s support. The key question moving forward is where that support will go, and whether Cain can win it back. The next debate is on November 9, and with Iowa setting its caucus date for January 3, it’s likely to be just as feisty.