Once the presidential primary race is underway and real candidates begin to perform under pressure, the conventional wisdom spun by pundits and operatives begins to crumble. We saw last night, although the chattering class might not have realized it, that much of what the pundits have been saying simply isn’t so.

“You can’t attack Obama on foreign policy.” Actually, a surprisingly large amount of the debate was about foreign policy. An isolationist (Rep. Ron Paul, former governor Gary Johnson), in the wake of the Osama bin Laden killing, seems far less credible than Obama as a potential commander in chief (as Rick Santorum pointed out, without the Afghanistan war we wouldn’t have nabbed the 9/11 mastermind). But it certainly is possible to attack Obama from the right on foreign policy, as Tim Pawlenty did in his opening answer:

I do congratulate President Obama for the fine job that he did in making the tough call and being decisive as it related to finding and killing Osama bin Laden. A good job. I tip my cap to him in that moment. That moment is no the sum total of America’s foreign policy. He’s made a number of other decisions relating to our security here and around the world that I don’t agree with. If it turns out that of the techniques that he criticized during the campaign led to bin Laden’s being identified and killed, he should be asked to explain whether he does or doesn’t support those techniques. To give you one example, in Libya, he made a decision to subordinate our decision-making to the United Nations. I don’t agree with that. If he says Gadhafi must go, he needs to maintain the options to make Gadhafi go and he didn’t do that.

“There is no credible candidate in the field.” It’s certainly the case that some of the best conservative talent (e.g., Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Marco Rubio) is sitting on the sidelines for now. But you can certainly imagine Pawlenty or one of the debate absentees (e.g., Mike Huckabee, Rep. Michele Bachmann) rising in stature and visibility. If you don’t play, you can’t win. If the agonizers (e.g., Gov. Mitch Daniels) and the faux-modest (e.g., Christie says “he’s not ready”) don’t get in the game quickly, the party will pick a standard-bearer and that person by the end of the process will gain stature, confidence and credibility.

Republicans risk being seen as anti-union.” In the primary, opposition to Big Labor is a winner, especially if the focus is on out-of control public employee unions. Even in the general election, the percentage of union households is shrinking. So long as GOP candidates are defending workers (as several did in attacking the National Labor Relations Board’s refusal to allow Boeing to open a South Carolina plant), the Republicans will be on firm ground.

“The economy is more important than health care.” Perhaps that is true in the general election, but in the primary that remains a touchstone. Pawlenty cleverly said he wouldn’t attack Mitt Romney and then proceeded to do just that. (“Well, Governor Romney is not here to defend himself so I’m not going to pick on him or the position he took in Massachusetts. . . . We took a different direction in my state of Minnesota. I governed there; the direction for health care reform is to empower individuals and families to make choices that are best for them. . . . This is an issue President Obama stood in Iowa, in 2008 on the night of the Iowa caucuses. He promised the nation that he would do health care reform, focused on cost containment. He opposed an individual mandate.”) Notice how quickly the individual mandate came up? Although overwrought, Santorum’s riff on liberty is the philosophical basis for Republican opposition to Obamacare. If Republicans are the party of individual opportunity and personal liberty, isn’t Obamacare their most important issue?

“Polls show X is leading the GOP race.” The polls, as I have been saying for some time, are entirely meaningless. Donald Trump wasn’t on the stage, and the notion of him being the party’s nominee becomes more absurd once you see the plethora of issues and the demands of a real campaign. No one knows Pawlenty? They will after a few debates. Romney is the front-runner? We’ll see after his reputation is savaged in multiple debates over Obamacare.

The great thing about politics, like sports, is you can talk about it all you like, but eventually contestants take the field. Then performance, execution and preparation become critical. Those who think you can waltz onto the field without training or who think reputation is key are sadly mistaken. In the big leagues, individual talent and hard work matter.