This may have been the best debate yet, mainly because CNN's Anderson Cooper largely let the candidates just go at each other, but also perhaps because Jon Huntsman did not participate, so those of us who find him grating were spared.
The most newsworthy exchange was between Governor Perry and Governor Romney. Governor Perry said to Governor Romney: "You hired illegals in your home." Mr. Perry said it was "the height of hypocrisy" for Mr. Romney to accuse Mr. Perry of being soft on illegal immigration.
Mr. Romney got a bit rattled at Mr. Perry for interrupting during his answer, explaining that the illegals were hired by a gardening contractor. "I'm speaking," Mr. Romney said at one point, appearing to lose his temper and place his hand on Mr. Perry's shoulder, while saying that it had been "a tough couple of debates for Rick."
Here's the video on the immigration exchange:
Other high points of the debate: For Newt Gingrich, both his opening — "When I am president, we're going to replace class warfare with cooperation so all Americans can get off food stamps and onto paychecks" — and his closing challenge to engage Barack Obama in seven three-hour-long Lincoln-Douglas style debates with no moderator, only a timekeeper.
For Mr. Romney, a little Yiddish, saying of Mr. Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, "I like your chutzpah on this, Herman." I also liked when Mr. Romney interrupted the debate on illegal immigration to emphasize, "Every single person here loves legal immigration." He noted that 4.5 million people are on line to get into America legally, and said, "we want that to happen."
Mr. Romney was also strong in stressing the virtues of free markets. He said, "There's an effort on the part of Washington to think that somehow they know better than markets. … The right course is to let markets work." Later, he said, "Instead of dividing and blaming as this president does, let's grow America again." That's a wonderful theme.
There was an obscure almost philosophical debate between Senator Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in which Mr. Santorum said "the basic building block of society is not the individual, it's the family," and Mr. Paul shot back, "Rights don't come in bunches…Rights come from God."
Herman Cain had a good answer when asked about the Occupy Wall Street protesters. "They're directing their anger at the wrong place…They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out that frustration," he said.
Low points: Governor Perry said, "Let's have American energy independence," and Governor Romney said, "He's absolutely right about energy independence." Suggested follow-up question for the next debate: Governors Perry and Romney: You have both called for America to be energy independent. What exactly is the harm in importing some energy from friendly neighboring countries like Canada or Mexico? And what about energy makes it so different from other products that America shouldn't import any of it? Do you also think America should not import any food, clothing, electronics, or automobiles?
Another low point came when Governor Romney said America is spending more than it should be on foreign aid, including humanitarian aid. He said it was a mistake for America to borrow money from China to send humanitarian aid to other countries, suggesting that the other countries should get it instead directly from China. Suggested follow-up question for the next debate: Governor Romney, you've said poor countries should get humanitarian aid directly from China rather than from America. Do you really want to cede to China whatever influence or good will is purchased abroad by our foreign aid dollars? To which countries would you cut American foreign aid spending and by how much?
Bottom line: Governor Perry had a better performance than in past debates. Governor Romney was still strong, but it will be interesting to see how the exchange with Perry plays in the polls. Nothing else really qualified as a game changer. Michele Bachmann also participated.