Mitt Romney clearly headed into Tuesday night's Republican debate with the edge -- in percentage points and the much-desired Chris Christie endorsement, which follows the New Jersey governor's announcement last week that he would not run.
Christie praised the former Massachusetts governor as an executive who has used executive power, a reference to Romney's business experience. The endorsement was an easy decision for me, Christie said. Romney, in turn, called Christie an American hero and a real hero in Republican circles.
The question and answer between the candidates seemed to prove that the nomination is Romney's to lose, with most of the candidates directing their questions toward him.
There's nobody who's been able to solidify a No. 2 slot, said Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire polling expert and political scientist. Over the last couple of years, and certainly recent months, we've seen multiple candidates bump up to No. 2, but nobody's been able to stay there for more than one or two polls. The race is still largely Romney's to lose.
The debate, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., was sponsored by Bloomberg and the Washington Post. In the debate,
Romney defended the Wall Street bailouts -- the primary source of conservative and Tea Party anger, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out. Romney granted that the bailouts had been mismanaged, but still supported the actions fromer President George W. Bush took to make sure you don't lose the country and you don't lose the financial system.
We could have had a complete meltdown, Romney said. Action had to be taken. Was it perfect? No. Was it well implemented? Not particularly.
Romney once again proved solid. And seemingly impervious to a barrage of attacks.
Herman Cain: The debate was all about the U.S. economy -- a test of staying power for the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, who has built his campaign on his fiscal credentials and private sector prowess. A pre-debate poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents by the debate co-sponsors found that Cain has pulled almost even with Romney in appeal as an economic leader.
Twenty-two percent of the party's supporters picked Romney, a former venture capitalist, 20 percent Cain and 12 percent Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the candidates who could do the most to improve the economy. And eyes are just as much on Cain as they are on Perry.
The polls presaged what proved to be the Dartmouth College's debate's outcome: Romney, first, but Cain a very, very close second. Cain came very close to winning the debate, due to his ability to keep almost the entire debate focused on himself -- and his 9-9-9 plan. As National Review Online's Robert Costa tweeted, Anytime 999 is debated, Herman Cain wins. You can just picture the thousands of folks turning to Google.
Cain's 9-9-9 plan would place a 9 percent tax on income and corporations and a 9 percent national sales tax.
He was quick to defend the economic team behind 9-9-9, but still seemed hesitant to name his economic advisers.
My advisers come from the American people, Cain said. I also have a number of other economists who helped me with this 9-9-9 plan. It didn't come off a pizza box.
The pizza box reference came from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman who dismissed the plan, saying he thought it was a catchy phrase, in fact thought it was the price of a pizza.
Nonetheless, Cain was his stable, consistent, unflappable self.
Perry: The Texas govenor came into the night with a lot to prove. Frequently labeled as a bad debater, this one was critical for Perry. He didn't fail miserably, as in previous debates, but didn't do what was necessary to recoup in the polls and regain his former popularity.
Perry, who has been criticized by Romney for not outlining a detailed economic plan, said he would begin letting the rest of the world in on his platform within the next three days with a speech later on boosting domestic energy production. But he missed his chance to let the public know even a snippet of what that was.
It seems like Perry not really sure he should be president. As noted earlier, voters can only decide to choose based on what a candidate says. It goes without saying that what a candidate utters should be what a candidate believes. And if he's unable to defend what he believes with the words he chooses to say, it gives the appearance of either not believing what he says or not knowing what he believes.
Perry has also been suffering in the rankings. In a Washington-Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, Romney held the lead with 25 percent of support among Republican voters, and Perry and Cain tied for 16 percent. But while you might wonder why we're talking about it: Perry has dropped 13 percentage points since the last Washington Post-ABC News poll last month; Cain has steadily risen 12 percentage points. Perry's support has fallen precipitously among his base. Only 10 percent of Tea Party supporters back him now, compared with 45 percent last month. Among conservatives, his support has dropped from 39 percent to 19.
Michele Bachmann: Bachmann turned in a good performance. Solid answers. Stayed on point. Not a star, but no mistakes.