Santorum, who has returned again and again to the notion that he is the only candidate who cares about families, sensed another opportunity to raise his favorite topic.
“Not one person here mentioned the issue of family, faith and marriage. The basic building block of society is not the individual, it’s the family, and the Latino community understands that.”
MORMON STORM: Speaking of faith, Perry finally had an opportunity to disavow comments made by Texas pastor Robert Jeffress that likened Romney’s Mormonism to a “cult.” Did he?
Perry was careful. He preferred to focus on freedom: Freedom of expression, freedom of religion.
When asked, he said immediately that he "didn't agree with that individual's statement."
Continuing, Perry said: "Our founding fathers truly understood and had an understanding of freedom of religion. We also are a country that is free to express our opinions. That individual expressed an opinion. I didn't agree with it, Mitt, and I said so. But the fact is, Americans understand faith. And what they've lost faith in is the current resident of the White House."
For his part, Romney downplayed Jeffress' reference to Mormonism as a cult, saying, "I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that." What was more troubling, he said, was the notion that voters ought to choose one candidate over another simply because of his or her faith.
"I don't suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would. But the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to, I think, is a very dangerous and enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution," Romney said.
TARP TRAP: Even Ron Paul jumped on Cain, suggesting that the former pizza executive has no sympathy for protesters who are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“I think Mr. Cain has blamed the victims,” the Texas Republican said. “There are a lot of people who are victims of this business cycle.”
Cain had said the protesters “are directing their anger at the wrong place. They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration.”
The back-and-forth was part of a larger debate over the role of the federal government in the recession and the Wall Street bailouts in 2008. “Guess who they bailed out?” Paul said. “The big corporations who were ripping people off in the derivatives market. Who got stuck? The middle class got stuck.”
Santorum got into a tussle with Perry, accusing him of supporting the bailouts, a contention Perry has repeatedly denied. The controversy stems from a letter Perry sent to Capitol Hill as the financial markets collapsed, urging Congress to act.
But, Perry maintained, he didn’t mean the bailouts of Wall Street banks and the auto industry.
Cain also was tripped up by the TARP issue, suggesting that he supported the bailouts but once he saw the American public’s resistance, he changed his mind.
“I have said before that we were in a crisis at the end of 2008 with this potential financial meltdown. I supported the concept of TARP, but then when this administration used discretion and did a whole lot of things that the American people didn't like, I was
then against it,” he said. “So yes -- and I'm owning up to that.”
GITMO GAFFE: Cain had some more owning up to do after the debate.
He was asked about remarks he made earlier in the day during a CNN interview about whether he would consider a prisoner exchange involving suspected terrorists jailed at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an American soldier, similar to the deal that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit along with more than 1,000 Palestinians.
It has been a longstanding policy of the United States not to negotiate with terrorist groups, but Cain didn't say that.
"I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer but what I would do is I would make sure that I got all of the information," Cain told CNN before the debate. "I got all of the input, considered all of the options. And then, the president has to be the president and make a judgment call. I can make that call if I had to."
Cain was asked about his comments during the debate, but said he did not recall making them.
"You would have to consider the entire situation. But let me say this first: I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We have to lay that principle down first," Cain said. "Now, then you have to look at each individual situation and consider all the facts. The point that I made about this particular situation is that I'm sure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to consider a lot of things before he made that. So on the surface, I don't think we can say he did the right thing or not. A responsible decision-maker would have considered everything."
Bachmann called Cain's position "naive."
After the debate, Cain told CNN's Cooper that he "misspoke" during the previous interview and that, as president, he would not consider such a transfer. But the episode probably will provide more fodder to critics who say that Cain lacks a firm grasp of foreign policy.
So after all that, now what? Has Cain lost his Hermanmentum? Mitt his mojo? Has Perry launched his comeback? Are voters simply ready to default to President Gingrich and have the madness end?
The race promises to grow wilder still, even as the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire loom and the campaign becomes measured in weeks and days rather than months.