Heading into the Republican debate at Dartmouth College, several key storylines had taken root. For Rick Perry, it was a need to counteract his ineptitude in previous debates. For Herman Cain, it was an opportunity to capitalize on recent gains in the polls. For Mitt Romney, it was sustaining the presidential aura that has allowed him to dominate these Republican primary debates without breaking a sweat.
At the end of the Dartmouth debate, here's what we know: Rick Perry neither stumbled nor shone. Cain basked in the spotlight but ultimately did not have much to say. And Romney maintained his status as alpha dog of the 2012 Republican field.
• Rick Perry: Expectations for Perry were so low that all he had to do in this debate was avoid babbling like a fool. He did not babble like a fool, but neither did he dispel the doubts that have arisen about his seaworthiness as a presidential contender. Perry spoke more in platitudes than specifics, and he was strangely unwilling to offer details about his economic proposals, even though economics was the theme of the evening. Perhaps because of excessive pre-debate coaching, Perry's personality seemed more restrained than usual, and though he survived the debate intact, what he really needed was a reversal of fortune.
• Herman Cain: Cain's newfound second-place status brought one visible change: a more prestigious piece of real estate on the debate stage. Wedged between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, Cain came across as more of a major player than in previous debates, and his "9-9-9 plan" received plenty of air time. Yet he does not appear able to advance his rhetoric beyond the bumper sticker level. The appeal of Cain's candidacy hinges in large measure on his ability to talk common sense to people who want to hear a simple, reassuring message. By definition, however, this also means painting in excessively broad strokes. If Cain is to advance as a serious contender, he needs desperately to widen -- and deepen -- his repertoire.
• Mitt Romney: At Dartmouth, Romney turned in yet another solid performance. Romney's fluidity in the debate arena ought to be giving the White House pause. Romney knows how to turn the live nature of these events to his advantage, as illustrated by a couple of off-the-cuff quips he made at the moderator's expense. Furthermore, he can deliver a line like "I'm not worried about rich people" with a straight face, even though everything about the man reeks of Wall Street.
Unlike previous Republican debates, the Dartmouth encounter focused exclusively on jobs and the economy, which lent the program an air of respectability that has been absent from the past few gatherings. In fairness, it must be added that this debate was also a lot less lively than its predecessors. Another difference: this time the participants were seated around a large table alongside moderator Charlie Rose and two co-questioners, not isolated behind individual lecterns. Romney, in particular, seemed comfortable in this milieu, though with eight candidates and three journalists the table felt awfully crowded.
Bottom line: Rick Perry needed a big night and he didn't have one. Cain needed to push his message beyond the 9-9-9 plan but he couldn't do it. Romney needed to maintain the status quo -- that he managed, and then some.