Anyone who watched last night’s debate surely detected the uneasiness between Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann. In true “fire-breather” fashion, Bachmann made no pretense of affection for or agreement with Gingrich on a couple of key issues. To my great delight, for example, she very transparently lambasted Gingrich’s defense of government-sponsored enterprises. To my slight confusion, she introduced a new line of attack on Gingrich — claiming that, at some point in the past, he plainly stated his intention to campaign for Republicans who supported partial-birth abortion. On that issue, the details were, admittedly, a bit hazy — but, on GSEs, at least, Bachmann was right on the money. Yet, against any brilliant militant advance of Bachmann’s (and against the less-brilliant advances, too), Gingrich forwarded only this defense: “Ms. Bachmann doesn’t have her facts straight.”

At last, Bachmann could take the condescension no longer. Half desperately, half determinedly, she reminded him, “I am a serious candidate for president of the United States,” and insisted that she did have her facts straight, thank him very much. Gingrich looked a little abashed. It wasn’t his best moment. For that matter, it wasn’t hers — but not because she wasn’t justified in her frustration.

This morning, pundits pondered the meaning of the exchange. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough offered, perhaps, the most interesting take on the tiff. The Daily Caller reports:

On Friday’s “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough said that he perceived an exceptionally harsh tone from Gingrich when he addressed Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in Thursday night’s Fox News debate.

“You know – did you notice something, too, Michael [Steele], about Bachmann and I think Bachmann’s getting tired of it,” Scarborough said. “Newt Gingrich when he attacks Michele Bachmann sort of speaks in a different tone and is far more condescending to Michele Bachmann than he is to the men on the stage. And she is starting – she’s actually starting to push back on the fact. It’s something we noticed a couple of debates ago. But I think Michele Bachmann’s about had enough of him being condescending to her.”

Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, now a MSNBC contributor, agreed with Scarborough and praised Bachmann for pushing back.

“I think it’s the irritation that really came through there at several key moments where, you know, they were going back and forth and she just took the stance,” Steele said. “Look, I am a serious contender for this office just like you are. And the only thing I could write was, ‘you go girl.’ I tweeted that out. I mean she was just – she hit it in a way that made it very clear. You’re not going to get away with pushing back on me to make me look less than capable or less than worthy to being on the stage.”

Last night, I contentiously tweeted, “OK, I’ve been debating about tweeting this all night, but I kinda think I think it: If Bachmann were a man, she’d be in the top two.” Followers quickly corrected that idea, reminding me of all the ways she’s “crazy” (their word, not mine) — but it took Joe Scarborough to show me the error of my ways.

Hear me out. Bachmann is arguably the most conservative member of Congress and probably the most conservative GOP presidential candidate. She’s also one of the best debaters on the stage. She speaks clearly and compellingly — constructing broad themes, which she filigrees with knowledgeable detail. Yes, she went a bit overboard on Gardasil and some would say she was disingenuous when she suggested the government would be able to function without a debt ceiling increase (I’m not one of those “some,” however) — and, arguably, she’s even more culpable for her more “extreme” statements because she often utters them in TV interviews or other settings that are less pressured than a debate.

But, by and large, she has conducted her campaign with drive, she has presented an admirable grasp of the issues, and she has kept her record — insofar as she has a record — clean. What’s not to like — especially for the rightmost conservatives who’ve clamored from the beginning for a “full spectrum” representative of their views? So, I cast about for some explanation and came up with a superficial one: She doesn’t exactly look like a president. By that, I mean she’s a woman and she’s very, very tiny. Perhaps I was projecting my own sexism on the rest of the electorate: I have, all along, felt she lacked something presidential and I begin to think that that feeling arose vaguely from my subconscious, which has been taught to expect that a U.S. president is male.

Now, I see that I was wrong. It’s not that the electorate doesn’t take Bachmann seriously because she’s a woman. Republicans in Iowa, for example, voted her to the top of the Ames Straw Poll. And, while her support has been marginal, she’s consistently polled in the relative “middle” of the pack, always ahead of Rick Santorum and Jon Hunstman, both of whom — to state the obvious — are men. She was beating Gingrich for ages.

But a partial reason for her decline might be that Mitt Romney — and now Newt Gingrich — never seemed to be too troubled by her. Bachmann never caused Romney to break a sweat. Newt Gingrich swats her away like a gadfly. Perhaps the electorate absorbed the attitudes of Michele Bachmann’s competitors, who — with the exception of Tim Pawlenty — never saw her as someone to beat and, consequently, never saw her as someone who could win.

But, then, to bring up the other two underdogs again, neither Romney nor Gingrich has ever seemed the least bit threatened by Santorum or Huntsman.

Who knows how these things go? Our attitudes toward presidential candidates are mercurial and all kinds of factors play a part. It’d be foolish to say we don’t take gender into account in our assessments of other people — and no doubt voters and fellow candidates alike have taken Bachmann’s apparent femininity into account as they’ve sized her up as a potential president — even if only subconsciously. But, in the end, to say Romney, Gingrich or the electorate has dismissed Bachmann because she’s a woman is to be the ultimate sexist, to reduce Bachmann solely to her womanhood, as though that’s the only factor by which she can be judged. Bachmann has been dismissed — by those who’ve dismissed her, that is — because she is Bachmann. Her person encompasses her gender, but her gender doesn’t encompass her person.