The big question coming out of tonight's debate: Will Newt Gingrich's immigration answer hurt him? In an otherwise dominating performance during which he, not Mitt Romney, seemed like the frontrunner, Gingrich appeared to endorse DREAM Act-like indifference toward sympathetic subsets of illegal immigrants and Michele Bachmann called him out on it. A similar position got Rick Perry into serious trouble just as his presidential campaign was taking off.
Gingrich has two advantages here. One is that he articulated his immigration position much more skillfully than Perry did, which is no surprise. The other is that he did not call people who disagreed with him "heartless," though there was a slight hint that they may not be very bright. It is the hostility toward anti-amnesty conservatives that rankled many Republicans about Perry, George W. Bush, and John McCain. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out going forward.
Romney mostly phoned it in tonight, sticking to crowd-pleasing lines and playing prevent defense. Michele Bachmann had a strong answer on Pakistan and "too nuclear to fail," but other than that only made an impact during her immigration exchange with Gingrich. Herman Cain didn't do anything to help himself or hurt himself. Ditto Ricks Santorum and Perry.
Jon Huntsman had his strongest debate yet. He outlined real differences with Romney -- though I thought he might actually mention the George Romney "brainwashing" comments on Vietnam -- and displayed much more fire than before. The question is whether Republican voters have already started tuning Huntsman out. If not, he may finally get a second look.
Ron Paul manfully defended his foreign policy views in front of a mostly hostile Heritage/AEI crowd, though he did have some supporters applauding. Calling the drug war a failure also seemed to go over well. The gap between him and most other Republicans on major foreign policy issues showed, and could be problematic in his closing comments about the Taliban. Some commentators speculated Paul would pivot and talk about domestic policy, where his positions are more popular with rank-and-file Republicans. But there was no chance of that, as Paul is in the race to get noninterventionist arguments a hearing in mainstream conservative debates.
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