This week, the GOP candidates who are recognized by the media once again gathered for another debate -- this one hosted by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post. And everyone sat around a table, which was neat! And all of the questions had to do with the economy, which was substantive! And Rick Perry had gotten himself a bunch of naps, which was ... okay, well, it wasn't anything. It amounted to nothing. Rick Perry was terrible.
There was all sorts of hot talk from the cheap seats. Newt Gingrich wanted to put Barney Frank in jail. Jon Huntsman told some poorly delivered jokes that made everyone feel awkward. There was a gigantic screen, upon which Ronald Reagan reached out of the past to address the present. Rick Santorum wanted more questions. Rick Perry wanted more sleep. Michele Bachmann invoked Satan. And at some point during the evening, part of Ron Paul's face started to melt away, like he was a living, breathing Salvador Dali painting that hated Alan Greenspan.
But after all the cacophony had subsided, there were two things everyone remembered. First: once again, Mitt Romney had made it through another debate without any of his opponents landing a punch on him. Second: "9-9-9." Actually, the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth things everyone remembered after that were "9-9-9." Then the Michele Bachmann Satan stuff.
Oh! And Charlie Rose said, "I believe in tables." One has to imagine that after spending an evening with the GOP contenders, most people would feel like it was the table that they could believe in.
On the strength of essentially holding serve, however, the race underwent another shift in the pecking order, and the new, new, new shape of the race is, for the moment, very simple. Herman Cain versus Mitt Romney, who you got?
Cain was well into a significant resurgence at this time last week, but forty-eight hours after the debate had ended, Cain reached a milestone -- poll after poll declaring him the frontrunner. He was up on Romney in two national polls, and leading or contending in every early primary state. We were full of scoff when it seemed last week that the Godfather's Pizza CEO might squander his opportunity by quitting the contest to go on a book tour, but now, it looks like Cain is rethinking that approach. What makes Cain particularly compelling is that he's already been through a surge and a subsequent fade from view. But he's the first of the not-Romney candidates to actually surge back. He's got what Rick Perry wants and Michele Bachmann desperately needs -- a second look. And some of the folks that are kicking Cain's tires are the kind of GOP names that you boldface.
Cain will have to hope that his second shot comes with more than just new pals and renewed media attention, however, because Mitt has Cain beat in the place that matters most -- the wallet. One of the reasons that political observers aren't writing articles about Cain's "path to the nomination" is simple: he doesn't have enough money to walk that path at the moment, let alone mount a national campaign. Romney, on the other hand, is raising mad bank. (Perry is too, which is why he's not going away either, despite his regrettable debate performances.) More importantly, Romney won the favor of last week's darling, Chris Christie -- and there are few endorsements that come with more benefits.
This is how Kevin Drum sizes up the state of Romney's candidacy:
First we had Romney vs. Trump, then Romney vs. Bachmann, then Romney vs. Perry, and now we have Romney vs. Cain. Remember Joe Louis' Bum of the Month club? That's what the Republican primary campaign looks like this year.
Sounds about right, and with the early primaries slowly getting earlier and earlier, Cain doesn't have that much time to play rope-a-dope.
Elsewhere in the race, the candidates who didn't get into the debates all at least managed to get into the YouTubes. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann had to fend off reports that her campaign was cratering and Jon Huntsman's daughters stole the spotlight from their father. Barack Obama looked to the locked-out NBA for an analogy, Rick Santorum looked to reporters for conversation, Buddy Roemer looked to Occupy Wall Street for inspiration, and Rick Perry hasn't yet won over some of Vegas' dicier denizens. For all of this and more, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of October 14, 2011.