The GOP Debate: The Field Rises

Bachmann Debate

They’ve been much-maligned for months now. Mitt Romney was the “weak” front-runner. Newt Gingrich was the “undisciplined” egghead. Tim Pawlenty was “TPaw,” the Deputy Dog former Governor of Minnesota. The rest were second-stringers who couldn’t possibly compete against President Obama.

Tonight they appeared on CNN for a two-hour debate in New Hampshire and changed the perception of themselves. They were engaging and articulate. They were surprisingly substantive.  They were ready for prime time. They looked like they could compete with President Obama all day long, all down the batting order.

The news item of the evening was that Rep. Michele Bachmann is now officially a candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. She announced this at the beginning of the debate. Rep. Bachmann must have been nervous; the new girl on the block and the only woman on the stage. She did very well, especially when she nailed her “right to life” answer. That answer (“I stand for life”) will resonate all across the Right To Life movement in Iowa.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will likely be described as the debate’s “winner,” as he stayed on message about the economy and emerged unscathed on Romneycare, Massachusetts and Mormonism. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will likely be described as the debate’s “loser,” for not attacking Romney on Romneycare when he had the shot.

The truth is both men performed well enough and accomplished what they needed to get done.  Romney solidified his standing as the front-runner.  Pawlenty raised his game. Both men can honestly say that they moved their campaigns forward tonight.

The surprises were Bachmann and Gingrich. Gingrich was terrific; focused, smart and keenly aware of the historical moment. He absolutely nailed the question on Muslims serving in the United States government.  Republicans have been waiting a very long time for someone to say exactly what Gingrich said tonight. You could feel his words resonate across the base.

If at the beginning of the evening Republican primary voters were wondering how long Gingrich would remain in the race, by the end of the evening they were probably hoping he would stay in for as long as possible. He saved his campaign tonight. He may run out of money and be unable to compete on television and radio.  But he earned himself a ticket to the next debates and the early primaries and caucuses.

Bachmann, who is best remembered for her semi-surreal post-State of the Union address last January, benefitted from the low expectations that were set by what happened that evening. But even given that, she emerged tonight as a significant challenge for Sarah Palin. Ms. Bachmann is sharper intellectually than Ms. Palin and she’s equally gutty. It will be interesting to see how Palin adjusts to the Bachmann challenge.

The others were fine.  Santorum raised his game nicely from the South Carolina debate in early May. Ron Paul was much better than he was in South Carolina and nailed his answers on US involvements overseas. Herman Cain was Herman Cain. Everybody likes Herman Cain.

All in all, GOP spirits are quite high tonight.  The moaning and groaning about the field was replaced, this evening, by the idea that Obama’s days as president could be numbered.




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