The first Republican debate with former frontrunner Mitt Romney as a hungry challenger took place last night, and in many ways it unfolded largely as I predicted.  Romney mainly stuck to his above-the-fray strategy except for a couple of notable exchanges in the beginning with the new frontrunner, Rick Perry.  Perry avoided looking or sounding scary despite the best attempts of the moderators to make him stumble.  Michele Bachmann may in fact have been the only real loser of the debate despite giving a credible performance.

Let’s start with Perry, who was the focus of the attention for his first debate.  The Texas governor did well, especially on a late question on the death penalty and when he challenged both Karl Rove and Dick Cheney on Social Security.  He gave a good explanation of how the current model of Social Security is indeed a “Ponzi scheme” for the younger contributors who have no hope of seeing any benefits without serious reform, and rejected the idea that telling the truth was so provocative that it shouldn’t be done in an election.  Romney had one of his weakest moments when he scolded Perry for scaring people while conceding that Perry was right, which made Mitt look as though pandering rather than telling the truth is preferable.

On the other hand, Perry gave a surprisingly weak answer on a gotcha question about climate change (“Can you name any scientists”?), a topic for which he should have been prepared.  Bachmann did better on the follow-up.  Perry also revealed a tendency to pause while reaching for the right words, which some speakers usually fill with trite phrases like “Let me be perfectly clear.”  He needs to improve if he expects to joust with Barack Obama in the general election, who looks more natural on the debate stage than Perry.  However, he didn’t give anyone a reason to not support him as a nominee and should keep his momentum intact.  Perry certainly came across as a fighter and a plain speaker, which will boost his chances among the Republican base.

Other than the weak moment on Social Security, Romney excelled in the debate at maintaining a presidential approach.  Even the sharp exchanges with Perry in the beginning didn’t get at all personal, and at least one time Romney defended Perry, noting that Perry had already admitted that he shouldn’t have approached the Gardasil vaccination by executive order.  More than most on stage, Romney kept bringing the debate back to Barack Obama rather than the other candidates on the stage.  Romney made a strong showing as an alternative to Perry.

Bachmann had a technically good debate, but far short of what she needed last night.  A slew of polls show her dropping back into the second tier after Perry’s entry into the race, and nothing that she did during the debate will have former supporters returning to her side.  She had nothing to lose by going on the attack, but Bachmann seemed curiously disengaged, and more passive than any other debate in which she has participated. Don’t be surprised to see Bachmann fading even further into the background after tonight.

Jon Huntsman had a great debate for about three-quarters of the event.  He came across as magnanimous, focused on Obama, and offered a coherent center-right view.  Unfortunately, he followed in Tim Pawlenty’s footsteps when the moderators asked him to repeat assertions from him and his campaign strategist about the supposed anti-science loons sharing the stage with him.  Huntsman, who did nothing to distance himself from John Weaver’s remarks earlier, refused to repeat his earlier accusations and weakly insisted that he didn’t answer for Weaver.  Like Pawlenty, the sudden lack of intestinal fortitude on camera eliminated whatever credibility Huntsman built this week with his economic plan and the earlier debate performance.

Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain had good debates, too.  Gingrich went after the moderators again, which at least gives him some real value to the other Republicans on stage.  Don’t expect to see Perry or Romney asking to get Newt out of any debates in the future.  Cain is always engaging on stage and scored points on economics, but no more so than in any other debate.  Santorum was mainly a non-factor, while Ron Paul was … Ron Paul.  He jabbed Perry over HillaryCare, and Perry jabbed him right back over his 1987 letter to the RNC repudiating his party membership because of Ronald Reagan, which left Paul sputtering.

Overall, I’d say that Romney and Perry did well, Romney perhaps a little more so, while Bachmann lost by not engaging, and the rest of the field didn’t make a case for their relevancy to the eventual outcome.  If Perry can work on his delivery a bit over the next two debates, this will become a two-man race.

In our Green Room, Kevin McCullough calls Rick Perry the big winner of the evening, and applauds all of the participants for an excellent and spirited debate.

Update: Bryan Preston at the PJ Tatler also calls it for Perry, and makes an interesting point about Obama being the biggest loser:

By comparison to all but one of the candidates, the president comes off poorly. He delivers a speech before tomorrow night’s NFL kickoff that will not be as substantive or as interesting as this debate. Despite the atmosphere of a joint session of Congress he will seem small because his ideas are small and he is a proven failure in his office. I doubt that Americans will have any qualms replacing him next year with a solid, credible Republican, and there were many of those engaged in this debate tonight.