Of Pauses and Princesses: Primary Debate Number Nine Recap

Gov. Rick Perry during a debate in Michigan.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Lisa Lerer, political reporter for Bloomberg News, discusses last night's GOP debate - from Cain's defense of his character to Rick Perry's "oops" moment - and what it means for the field.

The ninth Republican presidential primary debate took place on CNBC last night, and it was a weird one.

The audience booed moderator Maria Bartiromo for asking if allegations of sexual inappropriateness might call into question Herman Cain’s character. Cain himself flatly denied all the charges, referring to it as “character assassination”, to audience cheering and applause. The moderators declined to press on, switching the subject back to the economy.

Lerer said the scandal doesn't appear to have hurt Cain, and has even been a money-maker for his campaign. Yet other than those moments addressing the allegation, Lerer said Cain seemed like a “non-presence” during the debate.

When the scandal came up he really didn’t command the room very much, as he had during previous debates, and that could be an even bigger concern for him in terms of his staying power and him being able to take out Mitt Romney.

That audience last night that so loved Cain may not accurately reflect wide-spread sentiment among Republican voters. Lerer explained that in a Republican debate there tends to be a large number of partisans, since those are the people most likely to be interested and have access to tickets. Yet she said for the most part Republicans do seem to be dismissing the charges of Cain's wrong-doing.

We have seen a circling of the wagons, certainly among conservative pundits. One thing that they’re doing, encouraged by the Cain campaign, which has done this as well, is attacking the women.

Some conservative pundits have spoken out against this blanket disregard. Linda DiVall, a campaign strategist for Bush, recently said publicly that she thinks that Cain should drop out of the race. Republican strategist and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has said that Cain needs to address the charges rather than denying them. Yet others don’t seem to want the allegations even mentioned in a primary debate. Lerer said that’s indicative of the larger split on the Republican leadership.

In terms of the Tea Party types, the punditry, a lot of them have really gone after the women.

While Cain may have had a pretty easy time of things, Texas governor Rick Perry totally bombed. For an excruciating moment he searched to remember the name of the Department of Energy, finally petering out with a weak “oops”. Lerer said while everyone has had a moment of just going blank under pressure, this was particularly damaging to Perry.

It reinforces the narrative about him that he’s a bad debater and he’s not ready for prime time, that he’s not ready for the office and that he could not go up against President Obama, which is what the Republicans really want most of all.

Newt Gingrich had a strong debate, calling for the immediate firing of Ben Bernanke and an audit of the Federal Reserve. Lerer said his performance has led to buzz about him possibly being the next “not Romney”, though that might not be a good thing for Gingrich.

I think if that were to happen he’d face his own spate of problems. He hasn’t really been vetted in the media the same way. He has in the past, of course… but not in this campaign, the way those other candidates have been.

One thing that may haunt him is his previous work lobbying for Freddy Mac. He’s also had multiple marriages and may have personal behaviors in his past that would be unpopular with Republican.

There’s a lot of things that could come out about him that might turnoff Republican primary voters.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, touted his “steadiness and constancy”, boasting of his marriage of twenty-five—excuse me—forty-two years. No flip-flops here, said Lerer, is his real message.

That’s the major charge levied against Romney, time and time again, and if he becomes the Republican nominee, which I think he’s positioned to do right now, that’s the message that we’re going to be hearing…when Democrats bring up his changes in position, I think that’s how he’s going to market himself.