A general observation: In a federal republic, in which none of the Republican candidates on the stage at the Tea Party/CNN debate are currently members of the United States Senate, and the only two members of the House of Representatives there--Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul--are backbenchers who often cast lonely votes in dissent; in such a country and such a race, where the candidates come from and what they have had to or have chosen to do makes a significant difference, and becomes a target for opponents.
Some specific observations:
The toughest attack on Rick Perry came not from Mitt Romney on Social Security, but from Michele Bachmann on his executive order requiring girls to be inoculated against the HPV virus. Bachmann got specific in charging Perry with "crony capitalism" because his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company that made the vaccine. Perry manfully explained that parents could opt out of the immunizations, but Bachmann's charge packed an emotional and intellectual punch.
Similarly, Perry's strongest point came not on Social Security, on which he made the point that many others have called it a Ponzi scheme, but on his Texas program providing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. I had not realized that only four legislators voted against it, but I have noted over the years that Texas seems more friendly--in personal demeanor and in public policy--to immigrants, illegal and legal, than such supposedly more tolerant states as California. My observation is that liberal Californians tend to regard Latinos as valet parkers, assistant gardeners and construction laborers, while Texans of all political stripes--the many conservatives as well as the relatively few liberals--regard Latinos as Texans. Perry's insistence that he wants these young people to be contributors to society rather than dependent on welfare seems a little contrived; but the underlying point is serious and worth considering. Texas has lessons to teach us beyond low taxes, light regulation and limits on tort litigation.
Bachmann got specific in charging Perry with "crony capitalism" because his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company that made the vaccine."
Perry surprised me (have I not been paying enough attention?) by essentially arguing, near the end of the debate, that we should remove our troops from Afghanistan now. By the way, the audience was quite generous with its cheers at any suggestion that we should have a more isolationist foreign policy.
Also, Perry came up with some nicely pungent rhetoric: "People are tired of spending money we don't have on programs we don't want." Romney's denunciations of the Obama Democrats' economic policies were solid but less memorable. And his comment that Perry was "dealt four aces" in Texas sounded tinny.
As for others, Newt Gingrich was consistently interesting though as my Examiner colleague Joel Gehrke noted, he abandoned without much shame his support of tax preferences for ethanol, and his claim that we can eliminate huge amounts of government waste was, let us say, not overwhelmingly convincing. None of the candidates was outstanding on health care; Romney repeated his defense of Obamacare, without too much challenge; no one took on the suggestion by one questioner that it's wrong for health care to cost more (the argument would be that we get much more from health care than we did years ago and therefore can expect to pay more). Jon Huntsman was tough on Obama on certain policies, but his suggestion that Perry was claiming one could not secure the border—which he didn't actually say—was pretty close to treasonous fell terribly flat.
Herman Cain was, as usual, charming and endearing, never more so than when he said near the end that "America is too uptight." Rick Santorum came on with great passion on the hpv issue and against Ron Paul's claim that our policies were somehow responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.