On a night when Texas Gov. Rick Perry had the most to lose, Governor Perry might have lost the most.
The Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire Tuesday night was, if nothing else, an opportunity for the Texas governor. Losing support in the polls and replaced by Herman Cain as primary challenger to perpetual front-runner-by-default Mitt Romney, Perry had a chance to change the momentum.
He could attack Mr. Cain for his plan to create a national 9 percent sales tax.
He could cast former Massachusetts Governor Romney's health-care law as a job killer.
In the end, however, he looked like the candidate most likely to have left the iron on at home. By the end, pundits across the cable-TV landscape were wondering whether Perry had the fire to run for president, so muted and disengaged was his performance.
It was the most notable development of a night lacking in notable developments.
Romney was, again, the best debater – something that has before done little to erase the stain of once being a blue-state governor, and is unlikely to do so now. Having won the endorsement Tuesday of the man whom Republicans craved to unseat him (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), Romney's only real purpose in the debates is to avoid self-inflicted wounds, which he did adeptly enough.
Meanwhile, the debate, which was confined to economic issues, played to Cain's strengths as a former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. The event could have been titled: The Republican Presidential Debate – An Evening with Candidate Cain's 9-9-9 Plan.
He defended his proposal to establish 9 percent rates for sales, payroll, and business taxes (repeatedly), and his opponents questioned it (repeatedly). At one point, moderator Charlie Rose chastised the candidates for repeatedly attacking the plan because he had to give Cain a chance to rebut each criticism – making the night one giant 9-9-9 extravaganza.
By the old maxim that no attention is bad attention, it was a night of free advertising for Cain. It also somewhat disguised the fact that Cain appeared to have little else to say.
Meanwhile, the other candidates settled into roles that are becoming about as familiar as a comfortable pair of carpet slippers.
Rep. Ron Paul was once again the group's grenade-thrower, but switching his target from Perry to Cain. He mocked Cain's choice of a "good Federal Reserve chief" (Alan Greenspan) and accused Cain of calling Fed critics "ignorant."
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich persisted as Greek chorus, seemingly trying to interpret other candidates' answers for viewers and promoting peace among the participants by reminding them of the darker cloud – President Obama.
Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum played to the persona as earnest but seemingly unelectable, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman kept alive his streak of making jokes that the audience didn't get – this time an inside joke with Romney about their Mormon faith.
But it was Perry, who needed to recast his fading image as perhaps out of his depth in debates, who was served least by the status quo. In a debate about the economy, he refused to unveil his entire economic plan, instead only returning to a single note: expanding energy exploration in the US.
For a Texas governor, it was hardly a policy stretch.