Some quick notes after watching tonight's Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley...
There may be eight people running - and another one, Sarah Palin, still mulling a campaign - but this has quickly shrunk to a two-person race. It's Romney v. Perry, pure and simple. The other six candidates on that stage are no longer relevant and have zero chance of winning the Republican nomination.
Mitt Romney turned in another solid performance, as he usually does. He remains the smoothest and most polished of the GOP candidates. He's well-versed on the issues, quick on his feet and tough to rattle, although when the questions turn to topics with which he's less comfortable he has a bad habit of looking like he just ate some bad fish.
Rick Perry made a decent debut on the national stage, but between his deep-set eyes and that haircut he looks like a shady land agent trying to sell you a dry hole in West Texas. After a strong start jabbing Romney on job creation, Perry faded badly and was downright inarticulate at times. More than once, I found myself wondering what in the world he was trying to say during his stumbling non-answers to some of the questions. I do give him props (or, as Perry pronounced it, "propes") for standing up for HPV vaccinations for young girls, a program that's anathema to the conservatives he's courting. Perry firmly, and correctly, pointed out that HPV causes cervical cancer and that the vaccine prevents it. End of argument. Lance Armstrong has tremendous political influence in Texas and counts Governor Perry among the strong supporters of his anti-cancer platform there. It's a rare case where Perry embraces clear science over political ideology.
Jon Huntsman comes off as the most reasonable, sensible adult on the stage - which means he's doomed. He'd make a decent independent candidate but has no hope of winning a Republican primary. He's clearly pinning all his hopes on New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the GOP primary, but he isn't nearly conservative enough to carry this candidacy much further.
Michele Bachmann's reign as Flavor of the Month is over. She was a summer fling for Republican voters but the romance is done. The bigger her hair gets, the smaller her poll numbers. Perry sucks all the wind out of her sails. Watch her fade as Tea Party voters shift to the Texas governor.
Ron Paul's act has worn terribly thin. He's not as sharp as he was four years ago, and his anti-government rants have lost their fresh appeal. But now that the Republican Party will start awarding delegates proportionally, Paul may finally have something to show for his diehard following. If he can win 10 or 12 percent in some of the early states, he'll hang around for a while and build a small bloc of support.
Newt Gingrich - are you kidding? When does he come to his senses and end the delusion that is his campaign?
Herman Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan started to sound like an infomercial. If we embrace his flat tax proposal, do we get a free pizza or maybe some garlic knots?
Finally, with nothing to lose, Rick Santorum actually comes across as an authentic, sincere voice. His defense of welfare reform was impassioned, compassionate and impressive. He was clear and thoughtful on immigration and the economy, too. But he's not electable, can't raise enough money and his natural constituency has already abandoned him for conservatives with more buzz, like Perry.
Bottom line: Perry lost some of his luster and Romney showed he's not about to shrink from the challenge of a long, drawn-out fight. He's a proven fundraiser and, despite the polls showing Perry pulling way ahead, must still be considered a co-frontrunner. Perry got the chance to back down from declaring Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" but instead repeated it and called the entitlement program a "monstrous lie." Those words will scare the moderates and independents Perry would need to win a general election, but more immediately they will worry the conservatives who want to nominate someone who can beat President Obama. Perry's trying to seize the right-wing mantle to win the nomination, but many of his positions - dismantle Social Security, the scientists are wrong about climate change, evolution is just another theory - are radical enough to make him unelectable, and that could convince Republican primary voters to come back to Romney as their best bet to recapture the White House.
Ronald Reagan remains the paragon of modern conservatism, but he believed in the "big tent" GOP, deficit spending and amnesty for illegal immigrants. If he'd actually been on this stage debating, instead of just appearing as a romanticized icon in a gauzy NBC tribute, he would have been ridiculed as some sort of weak-willed liberal. The challenge for this field is to be authentically conservative enough to placate the Tea Party and engage the evangelicals without alienating independents and sacrificing electability.
It's only September. They've got five more months, and countless more debates, to get it right before anyone even starts voting.