11/14/2011 12:50 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

The Commander-in-Chief Debate

Two Republican debates within four days. The first, held Wednesday in Michigan, was supposed to be about economic issues and ended up being about Rick Perry's brain freeze. The second, held Saturday in South Carolina, was supposed to be about international affairs and ended up being about... international affairs.

Co-sponsors CBS news and the National Journal kept Saturday night's "Commander-in-Chief" debate on the straight and narrow, giving the candidates a badly needed platform for discussing policy beyond our domestic borders. Because the debate concentrated on issues, viewers got to see which of the contenders have seriously thought about national security and foreign affairs, and which are only pretending.

Heading into this debate, the focus of the political world was on Rick Perry, whose notorious "oops" moment at the previous event had cast the Texas governor as America's latest national buffoon. Although a post-debate media redemption tour mitigated the damage somewhat, Perry stepped into the arena Saturday night under enormous pressure not to further self-destruct.

So how did he do? Stylistically Perry was in much better form, delivering his sound bites as memorized, bantering comfortably with moderator Scott Pelley, and playing to the crowd with simplistic solutions to complex problems. If Perry was suffering from performance anxiety, he kept it under wraps.

Substantively, however, Perry was out of his depth. His big announcement--that in a Perry administration foreign aid for each country would "start at zero"--sounded groundbreaking on the surface, but not so radical when almost immediately he had to back-pedal on Israel. Perry gave a semi-coherent answer about the Chinese government needing to change its "virtues," and offered a nutty prediction that China would end up on the "ash heap of history." All in all, the student appeared not to have fully mastered his lessons.

Perry may lack foreign policy chops, but compared to Herman Cain, he comes off like Henry Kissinger. Cain had great difficulty in this debate sounding in command of his material. Without the endless loop of his 9-9-9 plan to repeat, Cain kept circling back to a different all-purpose response: whatever the situation, his plan is to listen to his commanders on the ground. With each answer you could hear the candidate deliberately running out the clock, even though he had only sixty seconds to fill. If Saturday's debate is any indication, the Cain balloon is visibly deflating. Watching him flounder within the context of a serious policy discussion reminded voters that this motivational speaker should stick to debates that are formatted like game shows.

Newt Gingrich, the unexpected beneficiary of Herman Cain's sexual harassment problems, kept his petulance reasonably in check, attacking the moderator only a couple of times. He was still testy and condescending, but this time he directed most of his hostility toward targets beyond the debate hall: Barack Obama, the Taliban, and foreign aid.

Jon Huntsman, the Republican candidate with the greatest international experience, spoke lucidly and authoritatively, particularly with regard to China. Rick Santorum is likewise proving himself to be one of the more realistic thinkers of the group, as evidenced by his nuanced answers on the difficulty of dealing with an unreliable ally like Pakistan.

Ron Paul ignited the night's only real fireworks, an impassioned anti-torture peroration, which in this crowd did not go over very well. Michele Bachmann had a mixed debate. She grasps international issues far better than either Perry or Cain. Nonetheless, her notion of foreign policy initiatives is peculiar, to say the least: one suggestion was that America ought to emulate China and stop feeding its poor.

Front-runner Mitt Romney has grown so cautious in the last couple of debates that he may as well be sending in a stunt double. On Saturday his liveliest moment came at the beginning of the program, when he got into a tiff with moderator Scott Pelley about how much time he was owed. It turned out that Romney was correct, and he ultimately received his full allotment of seconds. Yet Romney's tendency to get pushy in these situations serves him poorly. He may think he shows leadership by demanding what's his, but he also looks like a greedy plutocrat insistent upon always getting his way--exactly the wrong message for Willard "Mitt" Romney to be sending.

It is curious that Romney comes most alive in these debates when he is arguing for enforcement of the debate rules. Speaking about his political convictions, he demonstrates much less passion. Although Romney's performances have been solid throughout this cycle of debates, as the voting draws nearer, it may be time for a shift in tone. Romney has so far succeeded in not becoming the post-debate story, letting the spotlight fall on others, in ways both positive and negative. Only once in nine debates has Mitt Romney's façade cracked, in Las Vegas when he threw his "I'm talking--I'm talking--I'm talking!!!" hissy fit. Otherwise, Romney the debater has remained deliberately low-key, an efficient machine that gets the job done without drawing undue attention.

The trade-off is that Romney does not seem fully present; as a political character he does not know how to make himself interesting. Romney has mastered the mechanics of debating, but not the element of showmanship that the great practitioners of the art bring with them each time they step onto the stage. Perhaps a correlation exists between Romney's reined-in debate performances and his inability to rise in the polls. Instead of using debates to spark voter enthusiasm, Romney has single-mindedly pursued a different goal: staying out of trouble. As the candidate himself put it in a different context, "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake."

There has been a great deal of kvetching this campaign season about the number and frequency of primary debates. But these programs are doing exactly what debates are supposed to do: elucidating the candidates and their views, little by little, over an extended period of time. On Saturday night we learned several important things: Rick Perry can get through a 90-minute debate intact, but he doesn't know much about the world around him. Neither does Herman Cain. Mitt Romney remains the most presidential of the lot, possibly even the smartest. But the more we hear him talk in these debates, the less we understand what he cares about, beyond his own survival.