The CNBC debate last night from Michigan produced one noteworthy moment and little else of substance. Let's get the big flub out of the way. Rick Perry was attempting to make a dramatic point about how he would cut the federal budget by eliminating three departments, certainly a worthy goal. Unfortunately, he drew a complete blank when he got to the third department. This was not an ad lib gone awry by Perry. He uses this line in almost all his stump speeches. It was just one of those horrible moments that you desperately hope never happens to you in front of a crowd of people. The conventional wisdom is that it marked the end of a troubled campaign for Perry. His impressive list of accomplishments as governor of Texas has been undermined by shaky performances in the prior debates, but this was a disaster that made his earlier lack of coherence seem trivial. It calls to mind the classic line" I'll never forget whats-his-name." I would be willing to accept that Perry just doesn't have the kind of brain that works well in this type of circumstance. I doubt most voters will be this forgiving however. He may be a fine leader, but you don't want him as your lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court or perhaps negotiating with the Chinese. And certainly not debating the slick-tongued Obama. The rest of the debate was pretty unmemorable. CNBC made a serious mistake in bringing in some of its"personalities", eg Jim Cramer, to lob questions to the candidates. Cramer's question about corporations producing jobs versus profits would have been embarrassing if produced by a 9th grader. His later question to Herman Cain about HFT was far too specialized for this type of event. Most of the questions, particularly by the core team of John Harwood and Maria Bartelomo, were pretty tough, certainly far tougher than the softballs they would have been tossing Obama and Hillary Clinton. Many of these questions were phrased in such a way as to assume that the traditional market-based approach favored by the candidates was hard-hearted, unfair, uncaring, etc. For example, rather than explore the effects of flat versus progressive taxation, the questions were all directed at how "unfair" flat taxes are to the poor. I thought Michelle Bachmann handled this pretty well, again making the point that a tax system where nearly half pay nothing in income taxes is seriously in need of rethinking. In the same vein, several questions were asked about how the candidates would handle the real estate and mortgage crisis. Clearly the intention was to show them as uncaring. It might have been more entertaining to let Rick Santelli and Steve Liesman debate the same question. In a steel cage. A lot of people seem to feel that Herman Cain was the "winner", and I suppose I agree in one respect. Early on, a question was posed to him about the character issue and recent allegations directed at him. The hall erupted into a cascade of boos , jeers and catcalls. When the reporter attempted a follow-up, he was drowned out by even louder and more pervasive booing. Clearly this audience had had enough of personal attacks and wanted substance. Unfortunately, substance is not Cain's strong suit, and his incessant repetition of 9-9-9 became so tiresome that Cramer asked him to answer without using numbers. Cain clearly had no idea what cramer was talking about at the end in a question about market volatility and HFT. It was far too specialized a question, but Cain's utter lack of depth was again on display. It was a special night for Maria B, as she was treated to a condescending scolding by Newt, the sort of sneering superiority last on display by Charley Gibson when he interviewed Sarah Palin. Newt made the perfectly reasonable point that you cannot reasonably discuss a solution to health care in 30 seconds, but he made it in a way that left Maria fuming. Doesn't he know that Bernanke and Buffett take her phone calls? Let's assess how the candidates did: 1. The frontrunners. Perry, total, unmitigated disaster. Cain, maybe put the sex issues behind him, but beginning to sound like a one-note Johnny. Romney, very impressive performance. Often had a quip ready the instant the questioner finished. Showed backbone when pressed on mortgage issue. 2. The three amigos. Newt, again displayed awesome grasp of issues and ability to get his points across. Hard to say how his skewering of Maria will play. Santorum, best debate by far for this long shot. Zero tax plan for manufacturing has potential. I sense he is growing on people but he seems more of a legislator than leader. Bachmann, handled tax issues adroitly, rebounded from uneven performances in recent debates where she overplayed the Gardasil vaccine issue. Could she actually be the last, best hope of the anyone but Romney crowd? 3. The outsiders. Paul, again ignored for long stretches, when given an opening made impressive points. The sheer deceny of this man was put on display when he was desperately trying to throw Perry a lifeline in his moment of humiliation. Huntsman, uneven performance. Displayed impressive grasp of issues but lost the crowd and probably any chances when he appeared to excuse China's abuses in trade, intellectual property piracy and hacking.