“Mitt Romney: Romney came into the debate as the frontrunner in New Hampshire and nationally and he did nothing in the 120 minutes on stage at Saint Anselm College to change that. Romney was serious and well informed — in a word: presidential. His debate experience from 2008 clearly paid off as he stayed focused on President Obama and the economy to the exclusion of almost everything else. Romney also benefited from the fact that none of his rivals seemed to have the stomach to attack him directly. And, health care was — at best — a tangential topic. All in all a very good night for Romney…

“Tim Pawlenty: Pawlenty came into the debate with perhaps the biggest challenge: to prove that the insider buzz he has been generating of late could be translated to a public forum. He had moments where he shined — his answer on the separation of church and state was outstanding — but by and large he came across as a bit over-programmed. Pawlenty also seemed to pass on a golden opportunity to prove his ‘tell the truth’ credentials when King asked him about his criticism of Romney’s health care plan. Pawlenty demurred even though 36 hours before he had described the law as ‘Obamneycare’. Strange.”

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“Mitt Romney has tremendous vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate, but those weaknesses won’t matter unless one of his rivals tries to exploit them. Tonight, he skated past questions on the health care law he signed as governor and on his record of flip-flopping on abortion, because none of his opponents were willing to challenge him.

“This made for an especially weak showing by Tim Pawlenty, who talked tough in a television appearance on Fox News Sunday when he used the term ‘Obamneycare’ to describe the Obama/Romney approach to health care. But when given a chance, repeatedly, to elaborate, Pawlenty wimped out. In addition to letting Romney get away with his flawed explanations for his disastrous health care legislation in Massachusetts, Pawlenty came off looking weak – like the guy who criticizes you behind your back and cowers in front of your face. It was sort of like Ronald Reagan’s ‘I am paying for this microphone’ moment in New Hampshire, only in reverse.”

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“Unfortunately for Tim Pawlenty, he listened to those voices urging caution and that provided the debate’s signature moment. Offered an opportunity to hit his main opponent hard on Obamneycare as he called it just a few days ago, Pawlenty whiffed. In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether it was because he was too nice or not courageous enough to call out Romney to his face. Either way he failed. It was a key moment in this race and one that Pawlenty will rue in the months to come. He walks away from the debate clearly weakened by this astonishing failure of either nerve or imagination. Instead of winning the competition between the two mainstream candidates, Pawlenty is now in danger of slipping back into the second tier.

“The other candidates followed Pawlenty’s lead and Romney left the debate unscathed. That is a major victory for him and, almost in spite of his clear weaknesses, confirms him as the temporary frontrunner.”

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Via TPM.