Orlandodammerung: Gary Johnson Thrives, Rick Perry Gets Sliced by the Spin

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak in the Fox News/Google GOP Debate.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak in the Fox News/Google GOP Debate.

ORLANDO, Fla. – The consensus in the spin room was brutal and swift: This was Mitt Romney’s night.

“I’m fully supportive of Perry in the sense that he seems to be a decent conservative,” said Citizens United President David Bossie, hanging out in the spin room – candidate-less – before tomorrow’s conservative conferences in this catacomb of a convention center. “But I was hoping for more. It was a tough night for Perry. It doesn’t seem like he’s getting better.”

Perry’s team fanned out, making themselves available to reporters. The team included Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Florida state legislators. They did what they could with questions about Perry’s defense of his book, Fed Up!, and his accusations that other candidates had practiced feeble conservatism. A local AP reporter pressed Florida House Speaker on whether he agreed that no supporter of Race to the Top funding could be a conservative.

“I think what Gov. Perry means is you can’t support increased federal spending and increased federal government as a solution to education any more than you can support the federal government as a solution for health care,” said Cannon. “That being said, some of the attributes of Race to the Top…”

Romney’s team was giddy.

“He was the best I’ve ever seen him!” said Ron Kaufman, an RNC committeeman and longtime Romney backer. “Perry was incoherent sometimes. Unprepared. Unfocused. Unclear. Biggest mistake of the night was him saying ‘I stand by every word in my book.’ He’ll live to regret that.” Perry lost energy as the night went on, he said, “and he’s done that in every debate.”

Former Sen. Jim Talent was just as harsh. He shrugged broadly to emphasize just how surprised he was by Perry.

“I’m a Romney partisan,” he said, “but by the end I felt sorry for Perry.”

Talent added that the debate’s spin room was the least organized he’d ever seen. I wouldn’t go so far, but there were no signs to point out the locations of the campaign teams spinning for each candidate – usually a feature of these messy affairs. Doug Wead, a Ron Paul surrogate, got frustrated as he kibbitzed with the Paul team and reporters waltzed by.

“No one wants to talk to Ron Paul?” said Wead. “Third place in the polls! Second place in New Hampshire!”

So I talked to Wead, and asked why Paul had eschewed the anti-Perry tone of some previous debates, leaving himself out of some back-and-forths. “That’s just Ron’s approach,” said Wead.

Getting more attention, though not getting mobbed: Gary Johnson. He concluded a local TV interview and dove into a small group of reporters, fielding a question from me about an issue that didn’t come up: The death penalty. Did he wish it had come up after this week?

“I believe innocent people have been put to death in Texas,” he said – referring to previous cases, not this week’s.

The other questions? Mostly about whether he’d get momentum.

“Gosh,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs if I somehow catapult into the spotlight because of that joke. But I’d take it, if that was the case!”

My own post-spin grades, with the general election letter grade first, and the letter grade for how this plays in the primary second:

Romney: A (B+). With every debate, the arrangement seems weirder and weirder. Almost no one wants to attack Mitt Romney. No one attacks him effectively. This would have been unimaginable a few months ago, but as long as Perry rides high, it’s true. Romney was focused when he needed to be about a foe he showed utter contempt for. His gauzy answers on specifics – well, nothing new there, nothing out of the ordinary for debates.

Johnson: A- (B). Four questions, no flubs, a zinger that will ripple for a day or so. Exactly what he needed.

Huntsman: B (A-). A joke that actually worked (the possible murder of Romney by Perry, or vice versa), and a winning exchange on foreign policy.

Gingrich: B+ (B-). Friendly Fox News questions, fewer gotchas = a relaxed and ultra-confident Newt. His big ideas were not so big (Job training as part of welfare? Gingrich won that battle in 1996), but as the harmless elder statesman, he got big hugs from every rival.

Cain: B- (C). He hasn’t stopped excelling at the format with crisp, simple fix-all solutions. He wasn’t tripped up on foreign policy.

Paul: B- (C). I keep it fairly low because Paul really does need to grapple with other candidates to keep in the conversation.

Santorum: C+ (D). The truly odious moment on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – possibly the first ever booing of an active duty soldier at a Republican debate – will be remembered beyond his predictable attacks on the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t favor constant aggressive warfare.

Perry: C (D-). Go back and try to cut a 10-second clip out of any of his attacks on Romney. It’s impossible: He was visibly uncomfortable and unready to launch them.

Bachmann: D (D-). The long slow fade continues.