Let me offer my takes on last night's GOP primary debate (I saw all but the very end).
-Short answer? The debate reinforced, rather than changed, my impression of each of the eight candidates on stage. Which is usually what these debates do, but there's always the odd night when somebody really makes a good impression or shoots themself in the foot.
-Globally, the bad news for Mitt Romney is that this debate really did not do anything to alter the current dynamic, which started to set in as Michele Bachmann's poll numbers began tanking (she's now trailing Ron Paul in the RCP poll average) and is likely to remain true unless Sarah Palin jumps in the race: we're headed for a two-man race without any real competition for Rick Perry from the right, and that's a fight Romney can't win. He needs conservatives divided while he solidifies the smaller wing of the party.
-Two notes on MSNBC, which really should not be hosting a GOP debate (Ben Domenech aptly compared this to having Derek Jeter questioned by an audience of Red Sox fans). One, I made some jokes at first on Twitter, but the more I thought about it, the more offended I was at the use of Jose Diaz-Balart from Telemundo, who was brought out to ask an immigration question and then politely told by Brian Williams to go away once the immigration discussion was over. It's really offensive to treat a presumably legitimate journalist as if he's only allowed to care about one issue because of his ethnicity. We have long since passed the point where black journalists like Bernard Shaw and Gwen Ifill are treated as able to question candidates on the full spectrum of issues - but MSNBC was unsubtly pushing the assumption, much beloved by Democrats, that this is the only issue of interest to Latino voters. (Rick Perry, who won about 38% of the Hispanic vote in 2010 in a state with a huge Latino population, intends to challenge that assumption.) MSNBC should be ashamed of its treatment of Diaz-Balart.
The other low point came when Williams' co-moderator, Politico's John Harris, asked Perry to name his favorite climate scientist, as an appeal-to-authority argument against Perry on climate change. Think back to all the times Obama and other Democrats have made arguments about science (climate change, stem cells, nuclear power, SDI, etc.) - have you ever heard them asked to name the scientists they relied on? (Presumably by next time, Senator Jim Inhofe - one of the first major federal officials to endorse Perry - can have him prepared with the list of some 700 scientists who have signed Inhofe's report critical of climate change theories). The issue in the climate change debate is the evidence, not the names of the scientists - blind faith in scientists isn't faith in science, it's the opposite of faith in science.
-The contrast between the three Governors (Perry, Romney and Huntsman) and the other candidates could not have been more evident - it was obvious that they came off as presidential in a way that the non-executives did not. Huntsman put in a solid performance, but unfortunately for him, it was in pursuit of an inherently doomed strategy of irritating and condescending to Republican primary voters (this is why RCP shows him in ninth place with only half of Santorum's support and a third of Cain's or Newt's, eighth if you don't count Palin, who gets polled despite not being a candidate). He's only missing the big eyeglasses to be John Anderson.
-Relatedly, the three Governors are the only ones on the stage who have ever won a statewide election, and Romney's one win was nine years ago, by a plurality against a hapless opponent. Experience in appealing to an un-gerrymandered electorate does matter.
-Perry's goal in the debate, it being his maiden voyage in this race, had to be not so much to win the debate as to win by not losing, and he did that. He didn't do anything scary or have any terrible gaffes, although he was definitely rusty at times compared to the other candidates, who have been at this for a while now. His most controversial moment, of course, will be his jeremiad against Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" (which is definitionally true) and a "monstrous lie" to young workers, but that was also stylistically his high point - Perry was vigorous and passionate and even a little eloquent. Romney obviously hopes that Perry's candor will sink him, but at the end of the day, my guess is that what will matter is not Perry's diagnosis of the problem (as Moe Lane notes, Ron Johnson did just fine in 2010 running on a similar theme in Wisconsin) but the solutions he proposes, and we haven't reached that stage yet. Most of the other things Perry said that would turn people off are pretty much the standard things that cause Democrats to not vote for Republicans. Given Perry's moderate record on immigration, he probably helped himself by openly challenging whether the President knows better than he does the state of the border areas in South Texas.
-Romney's assault on Perry over Social Security (which, as was pointed out on Twitter, was an echo of George Romney's criticisms of Barry Goldwater back in the day) is not without risks of its own. If Romney wins this race by using the Democrats' "Mediscare" playbook (something Karl Rove has been doing already), he'll have fatally compromised his ability in office to do anything about entitlements, which in turn seriously limits his options in taking on spending and debt. Also my guess is that the more he pushes back against having an adult conversation about entitlements, the more he guarantees that he won't get the support of people like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, none of whom want to be in this race but all of whom have flirted with it precisely because they want that discussion to happen.
-Perry is, for better or for worse, running on his state. Romney is running against his.
-Bachmann and Cain are strong presences on stage, but they sounded like exactly what they are - a backbench legislator and a businessman/activist/talk radio host - rather than like serious presidential contenders. Bachmann's best moment in the debate, chiding Romney for overlooking the extent to which repeal of Obamacare requires legislation, made her sound like a legislator - and then she compounded that by stressing her introduction of a bill that went nowhere, a reminder that while Bachmann is a spokeswoman for a faction of the party, she has no actual accomplishments to run on.
-Newt sounded like he was running for RNC Chairman, or at least Chairman Emeritus. He's a wonderful debater, and has earned his status as one of the party's elder statesmen, but at this point, escaping this race with his dignity intact seems to be his main goal. Newt 2012 in a nutshell came with his answer to a question about writing the forward to Perry's book: "If he wants to write another book, I'll write another forward."
-I found it sort of amusing that both Newt and Santorum were touting the job-creation figures of the nation in the 90s, essentially running the campaign Al Gore refused to run in 2000, when he ran away from a Clinton third term to run as a business-bashing populist.
-Ron Paul sounded like a crazy old man with batty ideas who thinks the 80s were "a bad scene." Bogus.
-Easily the night's biggest loser was Rick Santorum, who just has no reason to be there, and it shows. Perry didn't even pretend to know who Santorum was, referring to him at one point as "that other person."
-Even if I never did love the guy as a candidate, I still kind of miss Tim Pawlenty. This interview with Colbert captures Pawlenty's low-key, self-deprecating demeanor, which unfortunately is not what people want in presidential candidates these days. And if we were going to have people on the stage with no chance, it's a shame one of them wasn't John Bolton, who would have elevated the discussion on national security. But eight candidates is really too many anyway.