The most entertaining moment of the Republican presidential debate, if not the most consequential, was an early question put to Rick Santorum, the first word of which was “Google.” For a fraction of a second, Santorum’s eyes bugged out in sheer terror. It was like approaching Captain Hook and shouting out, “alligator!” Of course, the question turned out to have nothing to do with Santorum’s now-famous “Google problem,” which only made it more devilishly clever.
As with all the Republican debates, this one devolved into a contest to see whether Rick Perry or Mitt Romney could most persuasively paint the other one as reasonable. Perry had far more material to work with here, and he scored points by invoking Romney’s history of covering the uninsured and support for the Obama administration’s education reform. Romney struck back by citing Perry’s history of providing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. (The immigration exchange is one issue where, in a reversal of the general pattern, Perry emerged with the far more general-election-friendly message.)
Romney, burdened with the most extensive record of reasonableness, was forced to lie most baldly. When Perry pointed out the (undeniably true) fact that Romney excised from the paperback version of his book the section touting his Massachusetts health-care plan as a national model, Romney simply denied it. Romney implied that his health-care plan differed from Obama’s in that it relied on private health-care insurance, which of course makes it exactly the same.
Romney’s most effective method, which he applied constantly, was to quickly transition out of every attempt to obscure his record by segueing into an attack on President Obama. Romney’s weakest moment occurred when Perry pointed out his support for Obama’s education reform plan. Romney quickly calculated that trying to convince the partisan crowd that Obama’s plan is centrist, and hated most deeply by teachers’ unions, was hopeless. First he stammered out a denial, then, when pressed, quickly confessed before assailing Obama for his opposition to support for private school vouchers.
In general, Romney took his weak hand and played it far better than Perry, who at times appeared to be drugged, and perhaps is still suffering from a recovery from back surgery. But though Romney won most exchanges on a question-by-question basis, Perry probably emerged with the stronger meta-theme. His overarching condemnation of Romney is as a slippery, quasi-Democratic figure. Romney has nothing anywhere near so strong to deploy against Perry. He has tried, elliptically, to paint his foe as unelectable. But the deeper Romney expresses contempt for Obama — tonight he accused him of never having held a job — the harder it must be for Republican voters to imagine that any nominee would actually lose to this unemployed, socialist, America-hating failure.