Last night, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) displayed the qualities that she demonstrated in my interview with her in March. She reminded the crowd of her experience (tax attorney, raised 28 kids, has rock-solid fiscal conservative voting record) while displaying verbal acuity matched only by the vastly more experienced Mitt Romney. She knew her facts and gave the swarm of liberal critics no “gotcha” moments.

Sarah Palin-obsessed pundits have been absorbed with the Bachmann-Palin comparison, declaring that Bachmann’s performance rules out a Palin run. That’s silly since, in my mind, Palin was never going to run. Moreover, Bachmann’s real competition is not Palin but Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

Now what about Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)? You can’t say there isn’t room in the race for him. But frankly, he’s going to have to fight for conservative votes with Bachmann, who seems more than capable of holding her own. Perry’s had a great record in Texas, while Bachmann has carried the Tea Party banner in the House. He’s got expertise on energy; she’s been through the federal budget wars. You can easily see them splitting the votes of party activists.

So let’s say Bachmann and Perry divide up the hard-core conservatives. Does that still leave Romney in the driver’s seat, with Pawlenty not able to pull in the support and money that had been waiting on the sidelines? Perry deprives Pawlenty of supporters and cash; Bachmann siphons off voters from Perry.

Romney, it’s fair to say, will have trouble winning against a single, unifying not-Romney candidate but with three contenders (Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry), does he put together wins in some early states and cruise from there? It could be.

The wonderful thing about politics is that you have to play. It matters who performs and who disappoints. Flaws are damaging only if opponents can exploit them. And most of all, in a multi-person race the most important thing is often the level of competition your top challenger faces

Perry, many believe, could be the not-Romney, but first he’ll have to wipe out Bachmann. Judging from last night, how likely is that?