In Tampa, Mitt Romney won the debate, and Rick Perry stumbled.
Romney deflected attacks on the health care plan he implemented in Massachusetts and pressed his case again for why Perry's record in Texas owed more to the state than Perry's magic. Asked if Perry deserved any credit, Romney said that being dealt four aces "doesn't make you, necessarily, a great poker player." Ron Paul came to Romney's aid, saying that Perry had raised taxes in Texas and joking that he didn't want to be too critical because, as Perry's constituent, he worried Perry "might raise taxes on me again."
The toughest moment for Perry came during a few rounds of abuse over his executive order to mandate the HPV vaccine for young girls. Perry reiterated that he had only put the policy in place because he was trying to save lives. He said he'd never do such a thing as president because governors are allowed some leeway to experiment whereas presidents are not. The argument matched the one that Romney makes in defense of his health care experiment in Massachusetts.
Michele Bachmann went after Perry not only on mandating treatment for little girls—she also suggested Perry had put the policy in place in exchange for a campaign donation. A release from Bachmann's campaign accused Perry of "Crony capitalism." Perry said he was offended. Bachmann wouldn't let it go, saying she was offended for the girls who were forced into treatment. Both Bachmann and Santorum had better performances in this debate than in previous ones. It's just Perry's misfortune that some of their best dance moves were on his head.
Even when Perry was taking a principled stand of the kind voters say they want, he ran into trouble. Defending his decision to allow the children of illegal immigrants to attend college—"It doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way"—he was booed. Romney said the plan created an incentive for lawbreakers, scoring points (for the moment) with the Tea Party crowd.
The political question is that if Perry is taking criticism from the right, who will benefit? Romney is not a conservative darling, and conservatives don't appear to think that Bachmann can actually win.
If this all feels a little inside, that's because at times the debate was. The HPV issue touches on whether Perry lives up to the principles he espouses. But it's a little much to hang a man's entire commitment to limited government on one decision. A round of questions that allowed candidates to offer their Fed-bashing talking points also ate up some time on the clock. I'd have much preferred to learn what the participants thought about the collapse of the European banking system. Or perhaps they could have weighed in on the collapse of the Middle East. Israel is being kicked out of Egypt, and Saudi Arabia is pressing the United States to allow Palestinian statehood. These probably would have elicited sound bites, too, but perhaps we might have learned something about the world view on these issue sets where the new president will have actual control.
Only Newt Gingrich seemed to have his eye on the ball when pitched questions of national security. Ron Paul made the case he did last election about why Bin Laden attacked the United States, and he was booed for it. He was simply quoting Bin Laden, but his opponents attacked him as if he shared those views, a fundamental attribution error. The moments of comic relief came from Jon Huntsman. They were not intentional. A reference to the band Nirvana fell flat. Later he made a joke about treason that also thundered against the backboard. He mumbled an aside about Romney's changing positions. He was like a garden hose turned on full, flopping around the front yard.
Huntsman wasn't the oddest contribution to the night, however. Discussing the individual mandate, CNN's Blitzer asked Paul a hypothetical question about a young man without insurance who is severely injured and requires hospitalization for six months. Who would pay for his care? Should society "just let him die?" "Yes," came a few calls from the crowd. It was chilling. Paul said charities would pick up the tab as they did when he was first practiced medicine, in the pre-Medicare era. The macabre audience response wasn't the first. At the last GOP debate, the mention of Texas' more than 200 executions drew cheers. There are five more debates scheduled for this year. At this rate, they should schedule one for Halloween.