Quick take on the New Hampshire debate:
1. Mitt Romney did nothing to diminish his front-runner status and may have even burnished it, so he’s the winner.
2. Michele Bachmann is the biggest upward mover. She was well-prepared, well-spoken, paid attention to the details and should have shed the “Palin Jr.” tag.
3. Herman Cain is the biggest downward mover. He didn’t do anything bad, but he’s starting to sound a tad repetitive and he seemingly was ignored by the questioners for long stretches of time. To be fair, just about everybody had at least one such stretch without speaking, but Cain seemed rather invisible. The expectations are higher for him now, and I don’t really think he met them Monday.
4. Newt Gingrich just might have done well enough to persuade some people to work for him. Seriously, though: He had a mostly good night, but it’s still hard to see this campaign ending with success for him.
5. Tim Pawlenty had some good answers — on growth, on labor laws, on faith — but I’m afraid his night will be remembered for backing off the “Obamneycare” line he threw out on the Sunday morning talk shows and wouldn’t stick to when asked about it in front of Romney. The race is shaping up as if someone’s going to have to knock Romney out of the lead spot, and Pawlenty shrank back from an opportunity to start doing that. This was not a good debate for him.
6. Ron Paul was Ron Paul, no more and no less. He stuck to his principles and made some interesting points. But ultimately he isn’t going to win.
7. Rick Santorum had some decent moments. Not enough to make an impact in the race.
I’ll be accused of spinning for the Republicans for writing the following, but here goes anyway. None of the candidates was helped by the herky-jerky format: Short answers (with time limits enforced unevenly); questions that skipped around and changed topics quickly; questions on social issues that were bound to draw more of a distinction between the GOP field and a generic Democrat than among these primary contestants themselves; too little time spent on the economy; an embarrassingly small and belated amount of time spent on the military and foreign policy for a country involved in three-plus wars (and the first of these questions had to do with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”).
What would serve the voting public well, and allow the cream to rise to the top, would be a debate format that drilled down into questions that are likely to be at the forefront of the public’s mind. As Cain put it, the three E’s: the economy, entitlements (I’d broaden this to include the entire budget) and energy. Add foreign policy. And make the candidates answer follow-up questions that get into specifics. Two hours on those four topics would have been far more revealing than the gimmick “This or that” questions about deep dish or thin crust, Coke or Pepsi, Elvis or Johnny Cash.
– By Kyle Wingfield