GOP Drama Won’t Help Beat Obama

All that was missing from Tuesday’s Republican debate was a surprise paternity test. Add that, and you would have had the perfect daytime talk show. Anger, betrayals, savage attacks, shocking confessions and, when Mitt Romney put his hand on Rick Perry’s arm, it looked for a moment it looked like there might even be fisticuffs.

While Power Play holds that tough primaries can produce better nominees, what the Republicans did in Las Vegas wasn’t about deep divisions, but about being too small. At the moment that the persuadable voters of 2012 are just beginning to look at the GOP, what they saw last night looked like a pack of Pekingese squabbling over a bone.

Part of the problem was that CNN opted to literally have a daytime talk show host moderate the debate. Anderson Cooper was most adept at playing up the clashes and milking out the drama while staying out of the fray. If you squinted, you could see Phil Donahue up there.

But the other part is that with so doggone many candidates, it’s hard for voters to see anything beyond the surface friction. The debate was helped by the fact that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was boycotting. Not only did he keep his snarky cut downs in New Hampshire, but also freed up some time so the discussion could be 11 percent more free flowing.

There won’t be another debate for almost a month, so in many ways this was the closing argument for the Republican candidates of the first half of the nomination process. When they convene again, it will be about six weeks before votes start being cast. From there begins the long march to Super Tuesday and the nomination.

One doubts that the GOP will be happy about the taste left in voters’ mouths by the buffet on offer at the Venetian.

But some fared better than others, and here’s how they fared:

Mitt Romney Has Had Enough

“So we went to the company and we said, ‘Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.’”

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answering Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s charge about employing illegal immigrant groundskeepers through a contractor.

Mitt Romney has lost his patience.

He’s lost his patience with all the debates, all the attacks and all of the questions he already answered four years ago. It’s hard to blame him and it gives him the air of a man who is indulging children in a tedious game. Romney has been running for president since 2007 and doing it as a Massachusetts moderate in a party dominated by Southern conservatives. That’s got to get old.

Part of the reason that Romney’s annoyance shone through on Tuesday was that for the first time, he was really the man to beat. In his first two debates, Michelle Bachmann was the bright shiny object for moderators and other candidates. In the next three, it was the Rick Perry Rodeo with everyone trying to hog-tie the Texan.

But current boomer Herman Cain doesn’t draw the same kind of attacks, despite a major media effort to repeat the cycle on Tuesday. He’s too nice and too likable to be the piñata. Plus, Cain is hard to hit because he often will either flatly profess ignorance on a subject or revise his position on the spot.

That leaves Romney as the man to beat. As he moves closer to locking up the nomination, the conservatives on stage are making their case to be the Anti-Romney and to stop his long march to the Republican Convention next August in Tampa.

Unfortunately for Romney, his annoyance emerges just when Republicans are looking for something to like about the man they may soon have to rally around. When he put his hands on Perry or asked Cooper for help in dealing with the fusillade from Rick Santorum or when he explained that he couldn’t have had illegal immigrants working for him because… he was running for office and wouldn’t have been so foolish, Romney did not present the cool, attractive countenance that has allowed him to slide through five prior debates.

The smile was more of a grimace and the laugh was more of a bark. If anyone needs a break from debates, it’s that guy.

What Herman Cain Meant to Say Was…

“CAIN: You’re going to pay the state sales tax, no matter what. Whether you throw out the existing code and you put in our plan, you’re still going to pay that. That’s apples and oranges.

ROMNEY: And I am going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it, because I’m going to pay both taxes.”

-- Herman Cain under fire from Mitt Romney at the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas.

Herman Cain might have done better if he would have just answered questions in song. “Imagine There’s No Pizza” would have been superior to what he ended up doing, which was sounding uncertain.

It’s never a good thing when a politician is moved to say “but if you just go to my Web site…,” and that’s where Cain found himself on his Nine-Nine-Nine Plan. Cain was right that you have to have a simple concept to sell, but the famous tax triptych has turned out to not be very simple.

Cain struggled on immigration and on foreign policy. He had said earlier in the day on CNN that he would negotiate with al Qaeda over possible terrorist releases from Guantanamo Bay in order to secure the release of a U.S. soldier. He was totally flat footed on the subject and earned (mostly gentle) rebukes down the line.

Cain still got the crowd going on the places where he refused to back down, like ripping the Occupy Wall Street Protesters. But in the places where Cain has decided to be more serious and more politically correct, he looked like a man losing his brand. He has something to lose now, and he’s taken something off the ball.

Perry Scores in Fifth Attempt

“I think it’s time not only to have that entire debate about all of our foreign aid, but in particular, the U.N. Why are we funding that organization?”

-- Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas.

Rick Perry may have saved his candidacy on Tuesday night.

Perry looked like someone who actually wanted to run for president. He was alert, engaged and, most importantly, he had something he wanted to talk about. When Perry discussed energy policy, immigration, foreign policy and health care he had something to say.

Perry won’t be much helped by his now evidently personal feud with Mitt Romney. Their bickering is a turnoff for voters. While Perry has to answer the endless charges coming from Romney (as he did by turning the tables on immigration) by reminding Republicans about Romney’s groundskeepers, the gratuitous shots make Perry look like a jerk. And with the rest of the field banging on Romney, Perry doesn’t have to do it alone.

But this debate performance was still a country mile better than anything Perry has done before. The best part was that he began to make an affirmative case for himself beyond referring to his record in Texas. He has begun the process of persuasion.

The biggest moment for Perry may have been when Cain essentially endorsed his no-fence but boots on the ground approach to border security. That left Romney standing with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum in favor walling off the southern border.

Perry will roll out the next phase of his economic plan later this week and it had better be good – bolder than Romney’s 59 points but more workable than Cain’s triple niner. But Perry likely earned himself another hearing from lots of Republicans on Tuesday.

And Just Who Does Newt Think Would Be Douglas in This Scenario?

“Let me just point out a second that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House. And the technique you’ve used maximizes going back and forth, over and over again….As the nominee, I will challenge Obama to meet the Lincoln-Douglas standard of seven three-hour debates, no moderator, only a timekeeper.”

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talking to moderator Anderson Cooper at the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas.

Newt Gingrich was in full professor mode on Tuesday. He instructed Republicans on how to debate and chided Cooper for a shallow effort.

But neither did he build on his momentum. Gingrich has to find ways to make things simpler, not more complicated. When he challenged Obama to 21 un-moderated hours of presidential debates it must have made even the deepest political junkies wince a bit.

But he held the rest of the field to account, and did it fairly. He made Romney squirm on health care and reminded Cain of the heartbreak of arms-for-hostages. He never came off as snarling or petulant as some others, but just testing assumptions of fact from a conservative perspective.

Here’s a suggestion for a future debate: Let’s have Gingrich moderate.

Paul’s Ace in the Hole

“It’s said the program was OK, but it was mismanaged. But I work on the assumption that government’s not very capable of managing almost anything, so you shouldn’t put that much trust in the government.”

-- Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, on the assertions by Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that the 2008 financial-sector bailout was necessary but mismanaged.

As long as the discussion does not veer into specifics on foreign policy, Ron Paul will always be the greatest slugger in the GOP lineup.

As Paul proved last night, he can go deep on almost any question and give an answer that is very much in tune with where the GOP’s head is right now. He gave no reason for any of his supporters to give up now and he gave other Republicans a reason to keep listening to him.

Having Paul on stage is like having a human truth-o-meter up there. He calls everybody out and loves to point out the flaws in both parties.

Santorum: Please Listen to Me

“The final point I would make to Governor Romney: You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare. Your plan was the basis for Obamacare. Your consultants helped Obama craft Obamacare. And to say that you were going to repeal it, you just — you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you’re going to do that.”

-- Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., at the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas.

Rick Santorum has something of the air of a man in the thriller who can’t get the world to listen to him about the impending threat from the volcano/killer birds/aliens/terrorists etc.

In Santorum’s case, the warning is about what he believes are a series of mounting threats to the American family – socially, legally and financially. And his warnings certainly resonate with a big slice of the Republican electorate, but one gets the sense that Santorum may be reaching the end of the line.

Santorum certainly managed to annoy the stuffing out of Mitt Romney with his hectoring on Romney’s Massachusetts health law and got some big applause lines with his pro-family stance, but if anyone has to consider whether he wants to spend the next three months begging to be heard, it is him.

Bachmann Double Dares GOP to Vote for Her

“This last Saturday I was the very first candidate that signed a pledge that said that by a date certain I will build a double-walled fence with a — with a area of security neutrality in between.”

-- Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., at the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas.

Rep. Michele Bachmann made a unique argument to Republicans on Thursday saying: “the cake is baked” and that Barack Obama will inevitably lose next year’s election.

If more Republicans agreed with her on that count her campaign pitch might have a better chance: That if electability doesn’t matter, why not get the most conservative Republican available. It’s sort of an “Oh, yeah?” brand of conservatism.

Mitt Romney wants to build a wall along the southern border . Oh yeah? Well, Bachmann wants to build two. Rick Perry wants a balanced budget amendment in exchange for more federal borrowing? Oh yeah? Well Bachmann says she would never raise the limit, ever.

But Republicans know in their guts that Obama will be harder to beat than Bachmann says. They’ve seen his ability to charm a crowd and know the juggernaut that is being built in Chicago will be the most wicked attack machine ever constructed. They don’t think it’s baked in the cake.

Also, allow Power Play to stipulate that in affairs of state, appearances shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter that Rep. Ron Paul’s suit looked like he had left the hanger in it or that Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s necktie was askew. But regrettably it does matter because it’s part of what voters consider when making their decisions.

With that out of the way, let us pose this question: Who told Bachmann that it was a good idea to dress up like a glamorous admiral from the future?

And Now, A Word From Charles

“KRAUTHAMMER: He left out Medicare and Social Security, which I think are the ultimate drivers of debt.

BAIER: He includes a sentence about that but doesn't specifically mention --

KRAUTHAMMER: No, because it's the third rail of American politics, speaking of electricity running through a device. Even Ron Paul, the ultimate ax cutter of the budget, won't touch them. But a lot of these ideas, these cabinet-level departments, half of them are favors to the Democratic constituency. Cut them all in time.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.