If one saw Michele Bachmann for the first time last night, it’d be difficult to imagine her as the frontrunner she once was. It is difficult to recall a moment where she stood out. Since Perry’s entry, she has fallen to as low as five percent in one poll. She toned down her attacks on Perry, criticizing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants without mentioning his name. She again questioned his integrity on the HPV vaccination issue, pointing out that the drug company had ties to his campaign.
Rick Santorum had his best night yet, with his remarks on public sector unions, parental responsibility in education, and especially Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, being very positively received. He clobbered Perry on illegal immigration, packing the strongest punches of the night. He also claimed that Perry supported a bi-national health insurance program with Mexico, and pointed out his non-answer on the question of handling a potential capture of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by the Taliban. Polls aside, Santorum did not appear like a long-shot candidate on stage. He did, however, make a big mistake by incessantly interrupting Perry during their exchange, which was the rudest moment in the debates so far.
Ron Paul’s supporters reflexively applauded his every answer, with his comment about the moral character of the nation being more effective than legislation in handling regulation of the “morning after pill.”
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson was finally allowed into a debate, and is likely to steal some of Ron Paul’s support. He got big cheers when he spoke about the Fair Tax and abolishing the Department of Education and joked about a dog creating more jobs than President Obama.
Jon Huntsman made his mark by calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. He sparred with Santorum on the issue, and seemed to win the exchange with, “Only Pakistan can save Pakistan. Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan. America must save America.” Huntsman’s problem remains that he is trying to win by coalescing moderates around his candidacy. It is very unlikely that a moderate will win the primary in this environment, but a poll out of New Hampshire showed him in a surprising third place behind Ron Paul.
The candidates had some fun with the last question of the night. They were asked who on the stage would be their running mate if forced to choose. Romney, Paul, Gingrich and Bachmann refused to answer. Johnson chose Paul. Santorum chose Gingrich. Cain said Romney if he adopted his 9-9-9 plan, otherwise he’d go with Gingrich. Huntsman chose Cain and Perry, as mentioned before, said he’d like to “mate” Gingrich and Cain.
The race may have shifted last night. Perry and Bachmann fell, while Cain, Santorum and possibly Huntsman rose. Gary Johnson may finally become a factor to Paul’s detriment. Gingrich performed well, but will probably suffer as the other second and third-tier candidates exceeded expectations.
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