Republican debate: Who did best? Who stumbled?

For the second time in a week, Mitt Romney may have turned in the best overall performance. Some conservatives believe Rick Perry did well, too. And the other candidates all had their moments.

Chris O'Meara/AP
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, sing the National Anthem before a Republican presidential debate Monday, Sept. 12, in Tampa, Fla.

Republican presidential hopefuls had a combative two-hour debate in Florida on Monday night. While President Obama served as an adversary in absentia, for the most part, the candidates spent their time going after one another.

Who did best? Did anyone stumble?

First, let’s acknowledge that talking about winners and losers in a debate is not the same thing as talking about who is winning and losing on the campaign trail. One debate early in the season may turn out to be inconsequential in terms of picking a nominee. The results of one pop quiz in September do not a valedictorian make.

But for the second time in a week, Mitt Romney may have turned in the best overall debate performance. He was prepared and crisp in his answers, and he differed with Rick Perry and others without seeming angry.

“Romney proved yet again that he is the best debater in this field with another solid performance in which he effectively downplayed his liabilities on health care and accentuated his strengths on jobs and the economy,” concluded Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza.

On Social Security, for instance, Mr. Romney kept hammering at Governor Perry’s past statements questioning the retirement program’s constitutionality. At one point, Perry started to say he wanted to have a conversation on the subject – presumably, with the American people. But Romney brought him up short.

“We’re having that [conversation] right now, governor.... We’re running for president,” said Romney.

That said, Romney did show the 59-bullet-point boring side of his public persona – an aspect that comedian Jon Stewart has mocked as being just right if you’re “running for president of Pundit-town.”

At one point, for instance, Romney answered a question on the viability of a national sales tax by noting that such a tax is refundable to exporters under the rules of the World Trade Organization. The audience, largely tea party adherents, seemed unmoved by this reference to an international economic group.

So what about Perry? Some conservatives believe he did well at the debate, too.

“... Rick Perry won .... He had a stellar one hour and fifteen minutes,” concluded Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative RedState blog.

However, the debate was two hours long. In the last section, Perry seemed to tire as Michele Bachmann hammered at his decision as governor to order all preteen girls in Texas vaccinated against a virus that doctors say can cause cervical cancer. (Perry has said he regrets that decision and should have consulted with the state legislature.)

Then Perry became a piñata on the subject of immigration, as almost all the other candidates criticized his decision to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Texas universities.

If you’re working and paying taxes in Texas, “it doesn’t matter what the sound of your last name is," said Perry, while the audience booed his position. "That is the American way.”

As for Social Security, Perry emphasized that current seniors should see no change, but he seemed to stick with some of his most inflammatory past statements. He implied that Social Security should be a state-based program, for instance, instead of a federal one, at least for some workers.

“The issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or retirees?” Perry said at one point.

As for the undercard, the other candidates all had their moments. Compared with last week’s debate at the Reagan library, Monday’s debate was more inclusive, as moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN worked to involve everyone in the conversation.

Rick Santorum teamed with Representative Bachmann to bash Perry on the forcible vaccination issue, for instance. Ron Paul continued to attack Perry from the right, noting that as a Texas state resident, his own taxes have increased during the Perry administration. Herman Cain said, “I would bring a sense of humor to the White House because America’s too uptight.”

The only candidate who seemed out of place on Monday was Jon Huntsman, who made forced jokes that included a reference to a Nirvana album that no one in the audience seemed to get. (Nor did we: We had to look it up.)

“Jon Huntsman can’t quite read a room,” concluded Maggie Haberman in Politico.

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