GOP debate recap: Romney's challengers fade away
Wednesday's ninth Republican presidential debate will be remembered mostly for one painful 57-second moment: Rick Perry's inability to remember which three Cabinet departments he wants to abolish. Perry’s campaign was flagging already, partly because of weak performances in earlier debates; after this, it's hard to imagine how he gets off the mat.
Once again, Mitt Romney turned in a polished performance and survived unscathed. If the Republican nomination were awarded by debate performances, Romney would be the winner already.
Oddly, none of the other candidates challenged Romney directly. So Romney is one debate closer to the prize.
Herman Cain was confident, comfortable and relentlessly on message, even after spending nine days fighting sexual harassment charges. But Cain was lucky that the rapid-fire format rarely required him to get beyond his favorite 30-second sound bites. Cain begins to run out of expertise at the 28-second mark; if he ever finds himself one on one with Romney, he'll fade fast.
Newt Gingrich is presumably looking for a way to break through to the front of the pack; if so, he didn't find it Wednesday. Gingrich spends a lot of his precious debate time quarrelling with moderators over format and criticizing the media. Those may be good talking points for a think tank impresario, but they're a long way from the core concerns of most voters.
Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Ron Paul all turned in competent explanations of their positions, which means they probably didn't move the needle either way.
As for substance, it was striking how little disagreement there was among six candidates on the broad range of economic issues covered in the debate. They're all for much less government, minimal federal intrusion in the housing market, lower and flatter tax rates and (of course) repealing President Obama's healthcare law. Serious conservatives will find important distinctions among them, of course -- between flat taxers like Cain or Perry and incrementalists like Romney, for example -– but most voters might not. (I'm exempting candidate number seven, Ron Paul, from the mind-numbing consensus.)
The bottom line: Romney's march toward the GOP nomination continues. His rivals, instead of rising, are fading.
Photo: Mitt Romney speaks during a debate hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party at Oakland University on Nov. 9 in Rochester. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images