The top eight Republican presidential candidates gathered around a large round table Tuesday night for their seventh debate, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. PBS' Charlie Rose was chief moderator of the "largely subdued" debate, which focused on the economy, and was sponsored by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post. Verbal brawls were rarer than at previous debates and the candidates seemed to broadly agree on economic principles — but there were still some very big winners and losers. Here's a look:
No question: "Romney won big," and he's back on top — maybe for good, says E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post. The former Massachusetts governor appeared "more relaxed and more confident" than in any previous debate, and none of his rivals knocked him off his game. "Romney is more in command now than he was the last time he was the frontrunner, before Rick Perry got in." At this point, "Romney's luck is starting to seem supernatural," says David Weigel at Slate. In debate after debate, "he lacks an opponent who can take apart his health care record in Massachusetts" — his biggest potential vulnerability. And until someone else steps up, says David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo, "it's Mitt Romney and the also-rans. It's that simple."
"Score this one a knockout for Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan," says Mark McKinnon at The Daily Beast. About a third of the debate focused on Cain's proposal to overhaul the tax code with an across-the-board 9 percent income tax, a greatly reduced 9 percent corporate tax rate, and a brand new 9 percent national sales tax. The focus on Cain's plan is a win in itself. But he also made this tax trifecta sound "a lot more substantive" than the "cheap rhetorical trick" his rivals tried to portray it as. "I think Cain won this debate," too, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. Maybe it was the setting — all the candidates sitting around "the corporate table" — but the former Godfather's Pizza CEO was "dominating" and articulate. "I've underestimated him. The voters haven't."
The Minnesota congresswoman "had her best outing since the early debates," says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. She was "measured and informed," and "if Perry collapses entirely and Cain ticks downward," she might still win Iowa. If Romney hit a "stand-up triple," Bachmann "trotted into second base on this performance." She ably showcased her "command of policy with answers that drew on her experience in Congress," says Molly Ball at The Atlantic. And when the anti-Romney slot inevitably opens up again, she's now a reasonable bet to step in.
"There's just no getting around it: Rick Perry's inept performances are dominating these debates," says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post. "Perry is apparently guaranteed to launch a huge dark cloud over his candidacy every time he gets together with the rest of the gang" — and between his "garbling his answers and simply disappearing for large stretches," Tuesday night was no exception. I think he's resigned to this shortcoming, says Maggie Haberman at Politico. Perry looked to me like a man just "buying time to get through the debate season — and closer to the anti-Romney ad blitz that his $15 million war chest is likely to buy."
There's no way this was a win for Cain, says The Washington Post's Rubin. In fact, it was such a "bad outing" that "even Ron Paul scored a point" off Cain by deriding his praise of former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. "Ooof." And Paul was hardly the only rival to knock Cain "off his game." Cain "was on the defensive" for much of the debate, says Brian Montopoli at CBS News, and he didn't come across as very knowledgable. "Cain can only get by on 9-9-9 and personal magnetism for so long."
The entire field
On the surface, most of the candidates had a good night, says John Hinderaker at PowerLine. But this debate was only broadcast on Bloomberg TV and the internet. My wife couldn't even find it on TV — she "finally tracked it down on the internet when it was half done." Really, "I doubt that many people saw it." And as a result, the overall "impact is likely to be slight."