It took the heat of Las Vegas to make Mitt Romney lose his cool. Finally showing his human side -- too vividly perhaps -- the normally unflappable Romney displayed a testiness in the latest Republican debate that did not flatter him. This is a side of Mitt Romney that has rarely surfaced in public. If he's lucky, it won't resurface any time soon.
The unlikely provocateur of this tonal shift was Rick Perry, who came to the debate fully prepared to strafe Romney with ammo. A Romney-versus-Perry story line was supposed to have taken shape two or three debates ago, but Perry's laconic performances pushed the conversation in a different direction.
This time the pre-debate buzz centered on Herman Cain. Cain's challenge: could the pizza man add a few extra toppings to the pie? As a presidential candidate Cain has been essentially a one-trick pony, relentlessly touting his 9-9-9 plan at the expense of all other issues. As long as his poll standings hovered in the single digits, this lack of dimensionality didn't matter, but the scrutiny was bound to intensify once he joined the top tier.
Cain found himself playing defense in this debate, and not very effectively. Asked for substantiation of his claims, he came across like Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character in Being There who speaks in baffling generalities. On non-9-9-9 topics, like immigration and the Wall Street protestors, Cain simply sounded uninformed. At the end of the debate, Cain still felt more like a novelty act than a viable presidential contender.
To a much greater extent, the debate's focus fell on Romney and Perry. In the past couple of debates Rick Perry has been like the kid who shows up for class and grabs a seat in the back row, hoping against hope that the teacher won't call on him. In a crowded primary debate the usual strategy is to grab the spotlight in a way that generates video clips and next-day coverage. Perry had taken the opposite tack, approaching each debate as an obstacle course strewn with land mines -- if he made it across the finish line with all four limbs intact, that defined success.
In the Vegas debate Perry goosed his energy level, jumped headlong into the game, and got some of his mojo back. Sporting a red power tie and a fresh haircut, the Texas governor bounded on stage with a macho salute and a big thumbs-up, like an AARP version of Tom Cruise. Compared to previous encounters, Perry was far better prepped. The man's words don't always make sense, and he speaks in rah-rah homilies that play like a Will Ferrell parody. But for once Perry did not look as though he would rather be home in bed.
What set off the fireworks was Perry's successful needling of Mitt Romney for having employed illegal immigrants during his tenure as Massachusetts governor. At first, Romney attempted to laugh off the charge, though his laughter sounded shrill. He then asked for moderator Anderson Cooper to intervene to make Perry stop talking, but the plea came off as whiny. When Cooper declined to get involved, Romney tried to drown out Perry's words by shouting over him. Then he turned ugly, remarking that "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and... you're gonna get testy."
Romney never quite recovered from this uncomfortable exchange, and for the remainder of the debate he and Perry danced around each other warily. It bears mention that in all the previous Republican debates Romney has been quite strong, so perhaps Las Vegas represents nothing more than an off night. But the Vegas debate does alter the narrative going forward, reestablishing Perry's primacy as the alternative of choice to Mitt Romney.
As for the other candidates, Rick Santorum took the prize for aggressive behavior toward his opponents -- he'd make a good debate moderator. Newt Gingrich worked in his usual anti-media screed, Ron Paul was Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann bonded nicely with the crowd.
CNN's production was not quite as over the top as its Tea Party debate last month, but the program nonetheless wasted a lot of time with unnecessary wind-up. For instance, the lengthy (and superfluous) opening voiceover started off as a paean to the American West, then morphed into an extended gambling analogy, with the various candidates pictured as faces on playing cards. The clichés flew fast and furious: Would tonight represent a reshuffling of the deck? Who would draw the winning hand? Which debater would be the the wild card?
Memo to future debate producers: Cut the extraneous set-up material. And don't move Romney away from Perry on the debate stage. The dynamic between these two candidates is too compelling to tamper with.