pre-debate post, each candidate had his own set of goals. Who achieved what he set out to do, and how did the performances measure up?
Newt Gingrich caught a lucky break: He was not asked about the mass exodus of his campaign staff. Instead, he was asked about his earlier criticisms of Paul Ryan's budget plan during a Meet The Press interview. Gingrich was able to adequately respond that his remarks were taken out of context. Gingrich gave a solid debate performance overall, even if no particular moments stood out. If he was still reeling from the defection of his staff, he did not let it show. Actually, Gingrich was quite comfortable on the stage.
Mitt Romney was asked about his recent defense of Romneycare. He would not divorce himself from Romneycare, but he was able to draw a number of specific distinctions between his plan and Obamacare, in rapid-fire fashion. Obviously he had practiced this response. Romney avoided the individual mandate issue entirely, but the average voter likely would have come away with the impression that the plans were different. Romney benefited again when the debate moderator invited Tim Pawlenty to criticize Romneycare and Pawlenty retreated from the opportunity. The question remains: Will Romney be forced to defend Romneycare at every debate, or will he be able to move on from it?
Tim Pawlenty was questioned about his recently-unveiled economic plan to cut taxes and create economic growth. Naturally, the liberal CNN debate moderator was skeptical. By contrast, the crowd of Republicans liked what they heard. Pawlenty actually received more applause from the audience than most. He stayed out of trouble--if anything, he was too cautious about criticizing the other contenders.
Ron Paul was true to form and spoke his mind. Unfortunately for Paul, his his fans--who normally manage to get seats in the audience at primary debates--seemed absent. He didn't get the laughter and applause he normally does. The other candidates wisely stayed out of his way.
Rick Santorum gave a decent performance, but remained a non-factor. He could not distinguish himself from the others.
The big event of the night was the Tea Party duel between Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. As explained in the previous post, both of these candidates have the capacity to generate excitement among the Tea Party wing, but it's likely that the Tea Party will gravitate toward the one who appears more electable. In this case, it was essentially a draw--Bachmann had a slight edge, perhaps. Both Cain and Bachmann avoided making major gaffes. Cain appeared no more or less informed than the other candidates. In the minds of non-strategic voters, Cain has as much right to be considered as the rest--despite having never held elective office.
As for Bachmann, she gave a very disciplined, polished performance. She avoided giving voters a reason to think she is the extremist that the left claims she is. If anything, she was more sober and sedate than one would expect from the firebrand. Instead, she emphasized her economic conservatism and her work in Congress. Bachmann did create one awkward moment by announcing that she had filed paperwork to enter the race officially. (The Campaign Status page has been updated to reflect this.) She should have entered the race before the debate rather than during it. Her delay in entering the race has given Cain ample opportunity to steal from her base, and she will struggle to get back into the driver's seat. Luckily for Bachmann, the moderator did not ask her any questions about Sarah Palin.
So who did the best? Overall, Cain and Bachmann probably got biggest boost from the debate, for the reasons provided above. They needed to look like serious candidates, and they did. Romney succeeded in skating by the Romneycare issue; any time he can do this, it's a plus for him. The surprise winner of the debate was Gingrich, who did not look at all like a defeated candidate.
The candidates still show signs of being new to the game. Most of them will improve over the next few months; it usually takes a few debates before presidential contenders become comfortable with the format. And they will grow more willing to attack each other as the pressure mounts.