I didn’t expect to think that Michele Bachmann would be the big winner of tonight’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, but that seemed the obvious conclusion. She was at ease and forceful without looking at all crazy or out-of-control. It’s a sign of how far to the right the Republican Party has moved that she didn’t stand out for her extreme views. On this stage, suggesting we should just rid ourselves of the Environmental Protection Agency seemed par for the course.
Mitt Romney did not lose anything tonight, which means that, since he leads in the polls in New Hampshire, he is a kind of winner. And on substance, his forceful defense of religious liberty was actually a high point. I agree with a view that is becoming widespread on the web - Chris Cillizza and Jennifer Rubin made this point in their winner-and-losers wrap-ups - that it was strange or timid for Tim Pawlenty not to be willing to back up his Sunday attack on “Obamneycare” with any force tonight. Either you want to take that fight on or you don’t.
On the other hand, I thought Pawlenty did one important thing: He identified himself clearly as the working class Republican of the bunch (even if his economic ideas would not exactly be ideal for working class voters). He made a very un-Republican comment on trade - “I’m for fair and open trade, but I’m not for being stupid and I’m not for being a chump” - that probably endeared him to the Mike Huckabee populists in the GOP.
Newt Gingrich did not do badly, but did not have the breakthrough he needed. Rick Santorum was clear in what he said and seemed at home on the stage. He probably aroused some interest in the GOP ranks. Herman Cain was likeable and willing to give short answers when they were appropriate (always a relief), but he did not wow people as he did in the last debate. And Ron Paul was what he always is: a gold-standard-loving-Fed-hating-anti-war libertarian. His base was happy.
If President Obama was watching, nothing that happened tonight made him quake in his boots. On the contrary, it was striking that the ideas on offer were largely conservative boilerplate: There is no problem, it seems, that can’t be solved by cutting taxes, slashing government and eviscerating regulations. Not much here for the political center. And that could be a problem for the GOP in the long-run: These candidates seem to think they have to be quite right-wing to appeal to the Republican primary electorate. And that, to return to the beginning, is why Bachmann did so well. She seemed a lot like all the others, but with a little more verve. Republicans might want to contemplate what that means for them in the long run.