No, that title is not a placeholder or an error. "What's your headline," so many people came up to me and asked last night after the CNN Tea Party Debate.
There are so many headlines about the debate. You all, I'm sure, want the quick and dirty scoop.
The short answer is Rick Perry won, but only by default. He had a stellar one hour and fifteen minutes until the full on conservative assault against his HPV decision and immigration decision began. Everyone took bites out of him, Huntsman choked on his bite, but Perry won because no one else did. This is the first debate this election cycle where Mitt Romney did not win.
But Perry's win was a win by default in the end because he has a potentially fatal problem. I'm not sure if it is the candidate or the staff. But I could have told you a month ago Perry was going to get attacked on the HPV issue and the immigration issue and he flubbed both responses. When the crowd went from cheering Perry to booing him, he lost his calm, even paced conversational tone. He stammered, talked fast, and had a funny disposition on his face.
He locked in his lead, I think. Neither the HPV or immigration issue are fatal when Mitt Romney is up there sounding like a Democrat in a tea party debate. Romney really hurt himself badly with those answers on social security, etc.
The other headline is Michele Bachmann, who largely sat out the first hour attacking Perry, went after Perry with reckless, wonderful, passionate relish during the second half of the debate. She played outraged mom and played it well. She proved she still has what it takes. The downside for Bachmann is that she proved it on an issue that is not consequential right now. Perry's HPV decision may disgust me and many of you — it was a horrible decision — but it's still an election about jobs, the economy, and who can beat Obama. Right now, 42% of Republicans think that's Rick Perry, not Mitt Romney and not Michele Bachmann. On top of that, the GOP critics can't find anyone who was a "victim" of the law because the law was so quickly undone.
That begs another headline: "GOP candidate give Perry more hell for an undone executive order than Romney got for still supporting Romneycare."
Another headline is somewhat self-serving. I really think this was the best debate of the season. The questions were on topics the GOP will use to pick its nominee. I think it helped to have a CNN "Tea Party" debate because the candidates knew who their audience was supposed to be. It really was a good and informative debate. This too raises another headline: "CNN Debate Highlights Just How Sucky John Harris's Politico Questions Were Last Week."
One more headline among the many — "Perry benefits from schedule." This, ultimately, is why Perry won't be badly damaged. By the time he started flubbing, many viewers had most likely moved on to the NFL and U.S. Open. He benefited. But his flubs leave open another headline: "The race is still open." Perry locked in his lead last night. But the lock in is not permanent and Perry left and opening for Romney and Bachmann to be resurgent.
He does, however, go into the third debate the undisputed front runner and will get yet another stab at getting those troublesome issues right — issues that will not hurt him in a general election, but could knock him out of a primary if he doesn't talk about them in a way that mitigates them.