- Romney took some heat on Romneycare, on illegal immigration, and on job creation, but had detailed, bulleted answers ready. He held his own. Because he's leading the polls, that's a win for him.
- Cain took the most heat for his "bold" 9-9-9 plan. Everyone attacked it. He suffered some wounds but didn't go down. Because he's already in the top tier, that's a limited success for him.
- Perry was his most energetic yet. Because expectations were so low, he helped himself, but his attacks on Romney were skillfully repelled. Because no one else imploded, there might not be much rebound in the polls for Perry.
- Santorum was a me-too candidate, trying to distinguish himself by adding something about family in every answer. No one seems to care.
- Bachmann was a me-too candidate, trying to distinguish herself by emphasizing her position as the farthest out on the right-wing. That's not likely to be the selling point she thinks.
- Gingrich played the wise old Republican, standing up for Reagan and warning against bickering. Too many other candidates have to implode for Gingrich to get a second look.
- Paul was his usual consistent self. He'd cut federal departments wholesale; he scolded his fellow candidates for not saying they'd cut defense spending; he said we ought to replace the income tax with "nothing;" he refused to pick between Wall Street and the White House for whom to blame for the financial crisis - he said blame them both and the Fed, too. His followers love him, but he's probably still considered the crazy old uncle in the attic by too many Republicans to have a chance at the nomination.
Watching the debate was a little like watching an alternate reality America. In the GOP's America, Wall Street had nothing to do with the financial crisis; health care costs are rising because of Obamacare; it's not the richest 1% who pay too little in taxes, it's the bottom 47%; America can free itself from dependence on foreign oil by drilling more in the US; nuclear waste disposal is simple - let states bid on being chosen for the dumps; "Obama doesn't have a jobs plan."
Everybody attacked Cain's 9-9-9 plan, either because the federal sales tax is a new tax, or because taxes would go up on the middle class, or because such a radical change would take years to work out. Some of the attacks mischaracterized the plan. Cain himself didn't exactly clear up matters. Cain and Bachmann bickered over whether it's a value-added tax. Cain and Santorum bickered over how many Americans would see a tax increase. Bachmann reiterated her call for everyone to pay some tax, "even if it's a dollar." I sometimes wish her standing in the polls would rise enough for someone to press her for details on how that would work.
All candidates tried to out-do each other on border security. Build a fence. Build a double-walled fence. Use technology. Use predator drones. Put more "boots on the ground." Eliminate incentives like tuition breaks for illegals (Perry wisely was silent on this one this time). Romney said of everyone on stage, "we all love legal immigration." Jarringly, one of the commercials that aired during a break was an anti-legal immigration commercial. That's right - legal immigration. I'm not sure all this went over well in Nevada, a state with a large Latino population.
Perry charged Romney with employing illegal immigrants at his house. Romney said the company he contracted for lawn care did the hiring and he stopped it when he became aware of it. Petty attack, Perry. Romney countered that Perry's Texas offered incentives for illegal immigration with tuition breaks. (Again, Perry refused to respond to this charge.) Advantage, Romney.
In another example of alternate reality, the candidates were unanimous in their criticism of the Obama administration's enforcement of immigration laws. In the news today was a report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that the Obama administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants for the third straight year.
Perry totally ignored one of moderator Anderson Cooper's questions. When Cooper objected, Perry dismissed him by saying, "You get to ask the questions, I get to answer the way I want." Putting down the press is probably a plus with the GOP voters; dodging questions is probably a minus with independent voters.
Santorum said Romney has no credibility when he says he'd repeal Obamacare. Then he and Romney bickered over whether Romney ever advocated Romneycare as a model for the country. Later, Santorum bickered with Perry over whether Perry supported TARP. Overall, there was a lot of bickering over who flip-flopped when and a lot of spinning one's past positions as consistent with the current mood of the GOP primary electorate.
Each candidate disavowed having a religious test for office. Or at least they implied that being a Mormon shouldn't disqualify you. Even Perry said he disagreed with what Robert Jeffress said when introducing Perry about Mormonism being a cult. Smart move - the Nevada audience booed when Jeffress's name was mentioned. But Gingrich said faith matters - "how can I trust you with power if you don't pray." I guess Mormons are allowed inside Gingrich's big tent, but atheists aren't.
All the candidates were eager to cut foreign aid - until Anderson Cooper asked if that included aid to Israel. Well, no, not Israel (all except Paul, of course. He is nothing if not consistent). Perry said we should defund the UN. Bachmann one-upped that by saying we ought to get Iraqis and Libyans to fund the American military involvement in their countries. Romney said we ought to get China to pay for humanitarian aid.
The conservative audience cheered when Paul said we should bring our troops home from Afghanistan (and everywhere else.) The audience cheered when Cain said he stood by his statement that if you don't have a job, blame yourself. The audience booed occasionally when one candidate attacked another, including some Perry attacks on Romney. I'm not sure whether going negative is going to help or hurt a candidate from here on out. And that's good news for Romney.