04:36 - Source: CNN
Candidates trade barbs in feisty debate

Story highlights

7 GOP candidates for president participated in a CNN debate Tuesday night

Bennett: Republicans came out swinging, but that isn't going to help defeat Obama

Rosen: Most interesting moment was when Bachmann appealed directly to women voters

Cardona: Not one candidate was able to articulate an economic message to Latino voters

CNN —  

In a session that turned fiery at times, Republican candidates for president hurled tough attacks at each other Tuesday during a CNN debate in Las Vegas. CNN Opinion asked contributors for their thoughts.

William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor and Republican, is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush:

The Republican candidates took off their gloves and let the punches fly at tonight’s CNN debate. The interruptions and barbs were frequent and unsettling. Republican voters want to defeat President Obama, not each other, and you could hear it in the frequent boos tonight.

That being said, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, the current front-runners, are not going to be handed the race easily. Cain held his own with his 9-9-9 plan, but he would help himself going forward to provide more detailed, comprehensive analysis directly to the American people during these debates.

Mitt Romney, under fire from all sides, showed that he is not afraid to hit back. He also demonstrated leadership by trying to elevate the conversation on the economy and immigration.

Rick Perry hurt himself tonight. His direct attacks on Romney stepped over the line. Voters want leadership and solutions and Perry neglected that for cheap shots aimed at Romney. The remaining candidates performed well, especially Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann, but have a lot of ground to make up. Rick Santorum is still a presence and he may have put some holes in the armor of the front-runners.

Ed Morrissey, a senior editor and correspondent for the conservative commentary website HotAir.com:

Last week, we expected a full assault on Herman Cain and his economic plan in his first debate as a front-runner in the Republican presidential primary. We got it tonight, apparently after the other candidates took a week to peruse the plan. Cain ended up on the defensive much of the night, mainly on his 9-9-9 plan and the national sales tax proposed in it. Almost every candidate made substantive attacks on Cain, who fell back to characterizing their arguments as “apples and oranges” over and over again.

Far more damaging to Cain was his statement to CNN earlier in the day that he would, as president, give serious consideration to swapping out everyone in Gitmo in exchange for a single American hostage. Cain did his best to back away from this, claiming not to have understood it as a question about al Qaeda, but Michele Bachmann took him to task for being “naive” and for abandoning a cornerstone American policy of not negotiating with terrorists. In an interview with Anderson Cooper after the debate, Cain admitted that he “misspoke” earlier in the day. His foreign-policy weakness was fully exposed in this debate, but it remains to be seen how much damage this does.

As for Mitt Romney, for once he spent most of the night on defense. Rick Perry and Rick Santorum went after Romney hard, and Perry’s attack on Romney for employing illegal immigrants had the former Massachusetts governor rattled for the first time in this year’s debates. Perry didn’t have a great night, but for the first time he didn’t have a bad night, and he remained energetic and on the attack all through the debate.

If anyone actually won this debate, though, it might have been Newt Gingrich. He stayed on an even keel, remained positive, and stayed out of the sniping that erupted for much of the first half of the debate. If Cain starts to stumble, Gingrich might be positioned to take advantage of it.

Hilary Rosen, a Democratic political strategist and former chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America:

The most interesting moment tonight might have been when Michele Bachmann appealed directly to women. It is the first time in this entire election campaign that this has happened – and in a race where women make up the majority of voters in both the Republican primary and the general election.

Beyond that, Herman Cain remains the most refreshing and biggest change candidate. He is still radically uninformed about major issues, but the other candidates could not kick him off the pedestal. Rick Perry was his most animated tonight and yet he still failed, demonstrating again with his bumbling response on religion and his stilted immigration attack that he is just not a good debater. The other Republicans continued their attacks on Romney on issues from health care to flip flopping. That means he hasn’t disposed of those weaknesses yet. Overall the most startling thing about the night was the open hostility these people showed for each other.

Barack Obama was the clear winner of the debate tonight. This group may be playing to some faction of the Republican Party with these ideas that we should be sending in Drones to catch illegal aliens, that we should not cut any money from defense spending (Ron Paul disagrees), that anyone who’s unemployed suffers by their own hand and that the the middle class should be taxed at the same rate as rich people – but they sure don’t speak to the majority of the American people. President Obama, by contrast, has shown that he does understand the cause of the economic meltdown and is fighting for jobs every day.

Roland S. Martin, a syndicated columnist and author of “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House.” He is a commentator for TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, “Washington Watch with Roland Martin.

After seeing seven of the Republican presidential candidates go after each other with gusto, the man who really founded Las Vegas, mobster Bugsy Siegel, would certainly have been proud.

All of the candidates knew this debate was important, and it was apparent that Herman Cain trying to rub out Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the previous rising stars in the field.

But Perry came out firing in his opening statement, declaring that he was the only “authentic conservative,” a pointed critique of Romney. When he gave Romney a rhetorical slap over the hiring of illegal immigrants, Mitt grabbed Perry by the shoulder to keep him from interrupting. Perry clearly wanted to be aggressive, but may have crossed the line, appearing to tick off the audience several times with his remarks. Perry was channeling Sonny Corleone, who was always reminded to not be so hot-headed. We know how that ended!

Clearly former Sen. Rick Santorum did his best to whack as many candidates as possible, especially Perry over whether the Texas governor wrote a letter supporting TARP.

Who played the consigiliere all night trying to keep the peace? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. At one point I thought he was going to organize a meeting to keep all of the families from going to war on each other.

Bachmann? If there was a mob character she resembled tonight it was Fredo from “The Godfather.” If she raised her hand one more time to get noticed, Anderson Cooper was going to send her out on a fishing boat.

Rep. Ron Paul continued his libertarian rants, and was pretty much the guy in the room who kept bringing up the family business that no one wanted to talk about. Did he actually sully the reputation of President Ronald Reagan by bringing up the Iran-Contra scandal? I’m sure the GOP wishes Paul would pull a Frank Pentangeli and just go away. Quietly.

And after it has all been said and done, Romney is like Don Corleone. He has taken lots of shots, was left for dead politically after 2008, but he is still sitting at the top, in control, poised to make everyone kiss his ring as the leader of the GOP “family.”

Before Iowa, expect all of the remaining candidates to “go to the mat.” But in the end, Romney will still has to be knocked off before someone else gets to sit at the top of the family.

Alex Castellanos, a founding partner of National Media Inc., which specializes in Republican political advertising and has served as media consultant to the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Phil Gramm and Mitt Romney:

And now, all the GOP candidates have lost their virginity: Everybody attacked everybody else on stage. Only Anderson Cooper escaped unscathed.

Mitt Romney did something no Republican has ever seen: He got the best of Newt Gingrich in an exchange of words. Mitt punked Newt on mandates. Romney won the debate tonight and climbed another few rungs higher on the ladder of inevitability. It wasn’t a transformational performance but he distanced himself from the field with his command of the contest. Romney still does not connect with Republicans however. He cannot seem to turn his campaign into a cause, at a moment when the country is yearning to change Washington and renew its greatness.

Herman Cain met his moment adequately. It is hard to go into a debate on a roll, with high expectations, and not disappoint. Cain met them and came out as he went in, in the top tier. Cain himself may not be a legitimate contender for president yet, but he has grown. He’ll get another chance to become more than his 9-9-9-9 plan.

Rick Perry, wearing his grandma’s orthopedic shoes, remains where he has slid, at the bottom. He came into the debate with doubts about his abilities. He left, creating doubts about his likeability. Perry’s slashing personal attacks on Romney made people wince. Lesson for Perry: You don’t become president by making yourself smaller. Dragging politics lower than it already is won’t get you elected.

John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast:

Boxing came back to Les Vegas last night – if you like political combat, this was the best debate to date. All the candidates came ready to fight, including the previously slumbering and stumbling Rick Perry. After the pack descended on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan they turned their fury on the presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney – and for the first time, the normally unflappable candidate seemed a bit rattled.

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich proved that they deserve to still be on the stage by unleashing the most substantive attacks on Romney’s health care plan and illegal immigration. There were surreal moments like Ron Paul turning withdrawal from Afghanistan into an applause line from a crowd that would have cheered the Bush doctrine a decade ago. There were epic panders like Rick Perry floating the shopworn prospect of defunding the U.N. and slashing foreign aid, which accounts for less than 1% of the budget. And there were head-scratching moments like Michele Bachmann declaring that President Obama “put us in Libya and now he wants to put us in Africa.”

Overall, Mitt Romney remains the most responsible candidate in the race, but he didn’t make major inroads into being better liked by the base. The debate was packed with enough policy substance and personal attacks that a full recap will require cutting the debate into a dozen different themes. But as a first reaction from the floor of the debate in Vegas, this was a fall classic – seven candidates getting into their groove with the first primary votes less than 100 days away.

Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, and former communications director to the Democratic National Committee:

The bottom line that one can draw from tonight’s Republican debate is actually quite simple. Every candidate on that stage would put Wall Street before Main Street, letting banks and hedge funds write their own rules once again and repealing all protections for consumers that President Obama and the Democrats put in place. None of the candidates on that stage were able to articulate how they would create one job now, and every candidate, starting with Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan, supports policies that would have middle class families and workers pay for tax giveaways for millionaires and billionaires and big corporations. Most candidates (excluding Ron Paul here) prefer that families in foreclosure lose their homes, rather than for banks to renegotiate the terms of their loans.

But most appalling of all, in a state with a 25% Latino population, not one candidate was able to articulate an economic message to Latino voters. Who among them could answer a question about Latinos without uttering the word “illegal”? And not one candidate could address what they would do with the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants here in the U.S. Building a fence the length of the border and talking about “anchor babies” is not going to cut it for a GOP looking to occupy the White House. According to President George W. Bush’s own pollster, Matthew Dowd, no GOP candidate can win the White House without at least 40% of the Latino vote - and that was back in 2004. Currently, the GOP is polling at 22% in Hispanic support, according to LatinoDecisions.com. At this rate, no GOP candidate on that stage will ever see the inside of La Casa Blanca.

Todd Graham, the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has analyzed presidential debates for five elections:

The debate was downright rude at times. Romney finally lost his cool, Santorum and Perry couldn’t stop interrupting people, and Michele Bachmann kept yelling “Anderson, Anderson, Anderson” over other speakers with her hand held up in the air like she wanted to be picked for kickball.

Ignoring the distractions, one main difference appeared in this debate. The candidates exhibited a united focus when it came to single, specific issues, and this was effective. Because of this, both Cain and Romney floundered at times.

For example, the attacks chipped away at Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Cain needed more depth in this debate on his economic plan. Instead, he brought fruit. His responses were no deeper than, “They are mixing apples and oranges.” Cain’s lack of depth was disappointing.

Similarly, this time Mitt Romney was forced to expand his answers, and often failed to provide specifics. Although Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich hammered away at the former Massachusetts governor, Romney still never explained the difference between his Massachusetts plan and the Obama health care plan. When the other candidates were given time to focus on a single issue in this way, Romney finally showed his vulnerability.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.