The big news out of the MSNBC-Politico Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library was probably the way the new entrant, Governor Perry of Texas, went after the previous front-runner, Governor Romney of Massachusetts: "We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts....Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, governor."
How that will play is another question. To my ears and eyes, Mr. Perry appeared oddly aggressive in his attack on Mr. Romney, while Mr. Romney was more classy in keeping the focus of his criticism on President Obama. Mr. Romney's criticism of Mr. Obama — "never worked in the private sector" — functioned also as a subtle criticism of Mr. Perry, whose career has mostly been in government. But it was subtle rather than the sledgehammer with which Mr. Perry went after Mr. Romney. Mr. Romney did directly criticize Mr. Perry for characterizing Social Security as a failure. "I would never say failure," Mr. Romney said, to which Mr. Perry countered, "maybe its time to have some provocative language in this country."
Mr. Perry's overall performance in his first televised debate was creditable. He appeared to be as comfortable, confident, and relaxed as did Mr. Romney, who went through this in 2008. The other candidates ganged up on him about the Texas cervical cancer vaccine issue, but the other candidates also ganged up on Romney about the RomneyCare individual mandate. Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry handled the criticisms pretty well, I thought. NBC's Brian Williams pressed Mr. Perry toward the end of the debate by asking whether, having executed 234 death row inmates, the Texas governor has ever "struggled to sleep at night" wondering if any of them were innocent. Mr. Perry met that question and a follow-up evenly.
There was a five-way-tie among the non-Perry, non-Romney candidates for my favorite line.
One was Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania, who, after extended discussion by the other candidates of the right techniques for securing the border with Mexico — Mr. Perry favored "Predator drones" and more national guard and border patrol "boots on the ground," while Mr. Romney called for a "fence" and an end to tuition breaks for "kids of illegal aliens" — remarked that as the son of an Italian immigrant, he though "we should not have a debate talking about how we don't want people to come to this country."
Two was Newt Gingrich, who, when asked whether he would reappoint Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, replied, "I would fire him tomorrow," and declared that the Fed's maneuvering was "absolutely antithetical to a free society."
Three was Ron Paul, who asked whether he could get gas down to $2 a gallon from $4 a gallon, said he could get it down to "a silver dime," explaining, "it's all about inflation."
Four was Ron Paul, explaining that the danger of a border fence was that it could be used by the government not only to restrict incoming immigrants, but reversed "to keep us in" at a time of capital controls.
Five was Herman Cain, arguing for his 9-9-9 tax plan — replacing the payroll tax and the rest of the tax code with a 9% corporate tax rate, a 9% individual income tax, and a 9% national sales tax — with reference to tithing by saying, "if 10% is good enough for God, 9% is good enough for the federal government."
The worst part of the debate was having to watch NBC's Brian Williams grill Ron Paul about various federal programs that Mr. Williams seemed unable to conceive that anyone could ever do without. Automobile safety? Making medicine safe? Air traffic control? The minimum wage? School lunches? The Federal Emergency Management Agency? The Transportation Security Agency? Mr. Paul did a decent enough job explaining that the state or local governments or the private sector could do all these things better than the federal government, but it took up a lot of time in a debate that, lasting only 1 hour and 45 minutes including two lengthy commercial breaks and a mawkish tribute to Nancy Reagan, wasn't that long to begin with, given the number of candidates on stage.
Michele Bachmann didn't really say much new to help herself, and her campaign is probably at a juncture where it could use some help. Mr. Gingrich continued his pattern of criticizing the journalists asking the questions, calling on his fellow candidates to "repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other."
Governor Huntsman of Utah called for marking September 11 by withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. He also got in a jab at Mr. Romney by boasting that Utah had been the no. 1 job creator and saying to Mr. Romney, "47th just ain't gonna cut it." He got his share of airtime, but he didn't really seem as confident as either Mr. Romney or Mr. Perry.
One final point: It makes no sense to me that Mr. Cain, Mr. Paul, and Mr. Santorum are up there but not Gary Johnson.