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The race for the Republican nomination gained momentum last night as seven confirmed candidates took to the stage in the first major debate of the 2012 election cycle. And while they lambasted President Obama's policies, the GOP hopefuls for the most part "played nice," using the two hour event to introduce themselves and their views to American voters rather than engage in petty shots against each other.
With seven months to go before the primary elections, here's a look at what a number of conservatives had to say about the impact of last night's debate:
Bottom line. This was a New Hampshire debate, but it has serious ramifications for Iowa as well. I have disparaged the idea that Romney is the frontrunner; I continue to think that given the polls no one is the frontrunner. But Romney behaved like a frontrunner, one with confidence and sense of command and with the adroitness to step aside from two major issue challenges (Romneycare, his various views on abortion) he faces...I think Bachmann emerged from this debate a more serious competitor and Pawlenty not a stronger one than he was before.
After last night, Pawlenty’s fund-raising will sputter. He’s not exciting enough for ultra-base small donors. He does not look enough like a winner to mobilize big-dollar donors. The cratering of Pawlenty opens an alternative space on Romney’s right. Gingrich is too damaged to seize it. Will Rick Perry try? Will Paul Ryan? If not, I’d guess the future course of the race goes like this: Bachmann wins Iowa. Romney wins New Hampshire. Absent Perry or Ryan, the field quickly empties out. The establishment rallies to Romney. The party follows just as it did in 1988, 1996 and 2000.
The Republican debate dispelled at least two clichés about American politics, that it is nastier than ever and that it is not substantive...Overall, though, the debate did not really change the shape of the race, and its biggest impact may be that it provided contrary evidence to the notion that the Republican field is somehow less than serious. On the other hand, the evening did not exactly leave the participants battle-tested. When one of these candidates ends up facing off against President Obama, they can rest assured that he won’t be fighting by this evening’s Marquess of Queensberry rules.
I think Mitt Romney did not just win the New Hampshire debate by holding his own, but legitimately won it with his answers and composure. He was unnecessarily defensive on the Afghan question, but largely showed his experience with Presidential debates. The surprise last night was Michelle Bachmann. If there was a winner of the anti-Romney coalition, Michelle Bachmann not only won, but won by a wide margin. Suddenly, for many, the flirtation toward Herman Cain and others will go in Bachmann’s direction. Bachmann’s stellar performance also contrasted with Tim Pawlenty who could have sealed the deal, or taken substantial steps toward sealing the deal, of being the anti-Romney candidate.
As far as the candidates go, Mitt Romney came into this debate needing only to protect his frontrunner status. And he did that tonight. He was decisive, fair-minded, and clear enough. He was presidential, not defensive or overly-hyped as some of the others were...He was aided in large part by the other candidates. They all seemed to lose the debate in one major respect: they forgot that a major task for the evening was to put Romney on his heels. Most were concerned with making their pre-written talking points, sometimes agreeing with each other, but no one put on the gloves and took some swings at the man who has rushed out ahead of the pack in the polls.
The seven candidates on stage performed creditably last night, with two pretty clearly helping themselves—Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. But since the stage at St. Anselm didn't feature all of the eventual candidates, one can also ask, which potential candidates who aren't yet in the race were helped or hurt?
Michele Bachmann had a great start to her presidential campaign Monday night. Announcing that she's running for president at the beginning of the debate was a clever way of grabbing headlines, but her performance wasn't all gimmicks. She seemed to outshine Herman Cain, the other Tea Party favorite, on both substance and style.