Well, I finally finished having coffee and watching the recording of the first GOP debate. (A recording because, 1. I’m an old man and you people have these things too late in the evening, and 2. you can fast forward through the ads and the particularly painful bits.) I know that some observers were treating this as sort of a “so what” event because of the lack of high profile names, but it still had a lot to offer for the politically addicted.

First, we should dispatch with the three people who came to this battle with pretty much nothing to lose. (And that’s a good thing, because if they’d had anything to lose they surely would have lost it last night.)

Rick Santorum: What to say? I’ve met Rick and he’s a really nice guy. And he is still beloved by the so-con community, particularly up in this neck of the woods in the Northeast, but he seemed ill prepared for this contest. Particularly on questions of foreign policy and fiscal matters, Santorum frequently just looked confused. He gave answers and then, when asked to clarify by the moderator, backtracked and seemed to give an entirely different answer. (See: Pakistan and Afghanistan.) Too many pauses and vague bits of filler. It just wasn’t an impressive showing.

Gary Johnson: Johnson’s supporters (and, yes, there are some out there) will likely say that he was ill treated by the Fox moderators, but perhaps that’s only because he presented such a high cross-section target for them. In short order I got the impression that even Johnson was wondering why he’d been invited. He got peppered with oddball questions, such as pressing him on his admission to breaking the law by smoking the wacky tobacky when it was still illegal. When asked “what sort of reality TV show he would like to have” he fell back on what seems to be his one and only claim to POTUS qualifications: “Hey, I climbed Mt. Everest, you know. So I could obviously run the White House.” Thanks for coming, though, Gary. It was enjoyable.

Ron Paul: Ron Paul was… well, he was Ron Paul. There were no surprises whatsoever. He stuck to many of his long held beliefs, some of which are now becoming mainstream conservative thinking. (Cutting spending, attacking the Fed) He also called for us to be out of all combat wars immediately, entering into new trade wars immediately, and wiping 3/4 of existing laws out of the penal codes. If you were awake for any of the last two GOP primary battles you didn’t need to watch to know what Ron Paul said.

That brings us to the other two faces on the dais, and here the picture becomes a bit more muddled.

Tim Pawlenty: Allahpundit made some pre-debate predictions last night about T-Paw, and in at least one part, they turned out to be fairly prescient, I think.

This is actually a uniquely bad setting for him, I think, even though he had no choice but to accept the invite. T-Paw would fare best in a debate with higher-profile candidates whom Republicans aren’t totally comfortable with, like Romney and Huckabee. In that dynamic, he’s the viable, likable, acceptable underdog. Against these four, he’s the opposite — the bland electable establishment favorite.

There was virtually nothing to criticize in T-Paw’s performance, aside from the lack of any highlight reel sizzle. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the moderators were throwing mostly predictable, standard, softball policy questions at him or if he was just batting them down so rapidly and smoothly that he just made it look that way. The only time he was seriously pressed on anything was the predictable hectoring on cap and trade. And he handled that one precisely the same way he did when Ed and I talked to him at CPAC. He said that every candidate has some “clunkers” in their past, and this was one of his. He was wrong on cap and trade before, and now he’s on the correct side of the issue. That left the moderators with little meat to chew, so they moved on.

It’s the kind of frank, honest, “let’s just move on” answer which works for that sort of uncomfortable question. It makes you wonder if the reason Romney passed on this show was that he knew Wallace was going to hit him with a parallel question on Romneycare, a query which he thus far hasn’t managed to come up with a good answer on. Maybe Mitt should just take a page from T-Paw’s playbook and start saying, “OK. I screwed up. Sorry.”

I find myself agreeing, at least part way, with Noah Kristula-Green when he asked, “Why is Pawlenty on Stage With These Crazy People?” I have to wonder how hotly contested the decision to show up was inside the Pawlenty camp. On the one hand, his name recognition around the nation is still way too low compared to some of the other big names, so he almost had do it. But at least compared to the first three candidates, he may have loomed large, but it was kind of like setting yourself up to be the tallest one at the kiddie table at Thanksgiving dinner.

T-Paw did make one smart move, though, by taking the opportunity to not attack the rest of the dark horses in the field all night, but frequently going after Obama and his top tier opponents. This short video clip was one of his answers on jobs where he tears into the President and the NLRB over the Boeing issue, which was a huge hit with the home town crowd.

And that brings us to what may have been the biggest surprise of the night…

Herman Cain: I’ll confess that I still hadn’t seen enough of Cain before last night to fully grasp all the buzz going on around him, but now I’ve got a fair inkling of where it’s coming from. Even compared to T-Paw, Cain was a picture of self-confidence without being smarmy. He put on a lengthy display of being warm, engaging, charming and, where appropriate, demonstrating a great sense of humor. He’s well spoken while retaining a kind of down-home, sensible “every guy” persona.

With that said, while his answers were delivered in top form, the substance was often on the thin side. He seemed to have five or six prepared talking points which he went back to over an over, framing every question with a kind of Ross Perot style, “Here’s how I identify this problem. And now we have to fix this problem.” I was dreading whether or not he was going to break out some flow charts and a Powerpoint presentation. But for all that, I couldn’t identify a single gaffe during the entire event.

If the first three candidates came off like a lost cause, Cain was the person with the most to gain in this debate and he certainly looked like he took full advantage of the opportunity. A much wider audience who had never heard of him got a chance for an introduction and that all important first impression. And Cain made sure it was a very good one.

So did he “win” last night? I still hate the idea of having to pick a “winner” in subjective beauty contests like this, but to say that here would still be a stretch. Yes, I already know from our many polls here that the Hot Air readership overwhelmingly favors Cain to any of the others on stage last night. (For that matter more than pretty much anyone but Palin or Bachmann.) And some of the expected voices like Jim Hoft and Stacy McCain immediately went into full blow, ALL CAPS DRUDGE MODE yelling CAIN WINS! CAIN WINS! But let’s face it… Cain has a lot more work to do than Pawlenty. One good appearance which was, at times, rather short on substance is not, I think, going to be nearly enough to launch his electoral ship boldly out into the public eye as a serious contender.

Conclusions

In the end, for all the good that Cain did for himself, Tim Pawlenty quietly took the stage last night looking for all the world like the only serious candidate there, and then walked off like he was on his way to have John Roberts swear him in to office. But given the field on display, that’s not exactly a shocker. It will get more interesting once the biggest hats are in the ring and both T-Paw and Cain are matched up against them and the zingers start flying.

So, if we absolutely must pick winners and losers in these things, in the most unsurprising conclusion of all time I’d say round one went to T-Paw. But if Cain can keep turning in performances like that consistently, the rest of the pack may need to start keeping an eye over their shoulders.