We've had three debates since Rick Perry entered the race and "solidified" the field. Say what you will about tactics, consultants, southern strategies, and Ed Rollins, it never fails to amaze how the awesome task of running for president always comes down to the candidate themselves. In the last three weeks, we've seen some people help themselves immensely, and we've seen others do incalculable harm, often while being themselves. Let's go down the roll call.
Michelle Bachmann: Just three weeks ago, Lady Icarus was running in second, had driven Tim Pawlenty from the race, and was offering witheringly effective critiques of the president. Then Rick Perry entered the race, and Bachmann went on TV and announced that vaccines cause "mental retardation." From Tea Party Queen to Lunatic Fringe in the space of one sentence. Depressing.
Herman Cain: I keep hearing how Cain can't win, that he's nothing but a pizzaman, and that he'll never rise from the second tier. But, he keeps winning these debates, at least according to the Luntz focus groups, and the hive mind of the right-wing blogosphere. He's also been admirably above the fray, refusing to violate Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment.
Newt Gingrich: yesterday's man has been putting his intellect and debating skills on full display, but he'll never escape his past. Gingrich deserves all praise for the 1994 revolution, and his toe-to-toe battles with the Clintons, but he legislated as a Big Government Republican, thus frittering away the '94 mandate. He is fundamentally untrustworthy.
John Huntsman: the one thing Huntsman has going for him is his tax reform/economic plan, which is serious and conservative. That is undercut by his smarmy presentation and his smug certitude about global warming and evolution.
Gary Johnson: the cool kids have been agitating for Johnson to be included in these debates, and he brought...poop jokes. Cribbed from Rush Limbaugh.
Ron Paul: agreed that Paul's foreign policy is to the left of Dennis Kucinich, but on economics and the role of government in society, he is - incredibly - still a lonely voice. His answer describing what society would do for the hypothetical dying young man was very thoughtful and even moving (in describing his medical practice pre-Great Society Paul said "we never turned anyone away"). Shades of 2008 when Paul was cast as the "crazy uncle" when he started ranting about the Fed, Wall Street, and the overweening government that was driving us all to ruin.
Rick Perry: "the race is very fluid," "it's a long time before Iowa," "it's a marathon, not a sprint." But, Rick Perry's lackluster debate performances have been killing him. You can be as conservative as you want, but if conservatives can't see that you will be able to beat the glib Obama in a debate, then it's no sale. Perry's outrageous claim that "you have no heart" if you don't support in-state tuition for illegal immigrants may be his "vaccines cause mental retardation;" the line that kills his candidacy. Sorry, jerk, but I just don't see how failing to support special privileges to illegal immigrants is racist or cruel.
Mitt Romney: I have no great eagerness to see Romney as the nominee, but I gotta say he has really stepped up his game since Perry got into the race. His presentation has been solid. His critiques of Obama have been sharp. And, John Nolte points out that he has demonstrated a real ability to neutralize the anti-GOP media. But, Romney remains fundamentally untrustworthy because he has already demonstrated that he would govern as a Big Government conservative. Romney certainly fits the ABO role well. But, a Romney win could easily mean that Obamacare will not be repealed. If he is to be the nominee, we'll need a lot more Tea Party members of Congress.
Rick Santorum: another second-tier guy who has been putting in first-tier debate performances. This is why you include some of the lower eschalon candidates in these early debates. One of them always shines, even as his campaign is little more than his wife and kids knocking on doors. If nothing else changes, I think Cain or Santorum will "shock the world" in Iowa, and emerge as this cycle's Huckabee.