Who was the night's biggest winner?

After writing a curmudgeonly rant (or two) about one of the worst debate productions ever seen, I suppose I owe a word or two about how the candidates did.  Frankly, none of them turned in an inspiring or inspired performance, although all of them did at least a competent job.  I spent two hours looking for a breakout candidate or a charismatic performance that would stand out and frame the rest of the primary race.  Instead, perhaps as a result of the silliness and grunting foisted on us by CNN and its moderator John King, none of them stood out much from the others, and none of them did much damage to themselves or each other.

I’ll offer my thoughts on each candidate in no particular order:

  • Mitt Romney – He came into the debate as a weak frontrunner, and he went out the same way.  He did well, and just as he did in 2007-8, came across as an affable, competent executive and speaker.  He had the most to lose in the debate and managed to protect his position, in part because of the efforts of the other Republicans to attack Barack Obama rather than each other.  He stumbled only once, in saying that the Afghans needed to liberate themselves from the Taliban, who are, er, also Afghans.  Otherwise, he did well and reminded everyone why he was John McCain’s strongest challenger in the last cycle.  He was, as always, cool and collected.
  • Tim Pawlenty – Pawlenty will get crucified for his refusal to back up his “ObamneyCare” attack from a few days ago when faced with Romney on the stage, and in part deservedly so — but only because the candidates agreed to the sound-bite format in the first place.  On policy and substance, Pawlenty did fine, but he needed to outperform Romney to start building traction early.  At best this was an opportunity missed, and a reminder that it’s going to be tough to beat Romney in the debates.
  • Michele Bachmann – Bachmann’s good performance seems to have caught everyone by surprise except me.  The media paints Bachmann as a wild-eyed nut, but I’ve known her for years, and she’s very sharp and quick-witted.  She didn’t make any mistakes, and perhaps more than anyone last night allowed her personality to shine, impressing even Dana Milbank.  She can play with the big boys, as she will prove again and again, but other than the surprise factor, Bachmann turned in a solid but not breakout performance.  She’ll get a decent bump in polling after last night.
  • Newt Gingrich – Gingrich had nothing to lose last night and let it rip.  As always, he provided excellent analysis and spin, but Gingrich has a problem in debate formats, which is that he doesn’t like to be challenged — and it shows.  He looked angry and argumentative, and at times almost resentful.  He didn’t demonstrate the kind of poise that usually impresses in this format, and while some of that might be welcome in a hostile environment, Gingrich didn’t apply his annoyance where it would have counted … at the inane “This or That” questions.  It was impossible for Gingrich to hurt himself, but he didn’t exactly help himself either, especially when he appeared to endorse McCarthyism.
  • Herman Cain – Other than his attempt to defuse the issue of Muslims working in his government, Cain did a pretty good job, but nowhere near the blockbuster performance the last time.  That’s OK; it’s still early in the season for all of these candidates, and like college football, it’s the late losses that count, not the early ones.  He needs to regroup a little and try to muscle the conversation more towards his strengths on the economy and jobs, which CNN avoided like the plague last night to his disadvantage.
  • Rick Santorum – It’s been a while since I’ve seen Santorum in this context, and he looked and sounded good.  He also needs to muscle up a bit, but again, it’s early.  At times, Santorum seemed a little lost on stage, getting outshined by the other candidates.  It wasn’t memorable, but it’s a decent start.
  • Ron Paul – Well, if you like Ron Paul, you liked him last night, and if you don’t, you saw what you normally saw.  Other than Bachmann, he may have allowed more of his actual personality out than the other candidates, but again, that’s not necessarily a good thing for his electoral chances.  Paul offered a completely incoherent answer on emergency room treatment that ended up opposing attacks on the Catholic Church while offering the suggestion that Catholics fund indigent care.  On the other hand, he picked Blackberries over iPhones, so it’s a wash, I guess.

The biggest winner for me was None of the Above.  There is plenty of room for a charismatic, accomplished candidate to jump into this race and outshine the field as it stands at the moment.  For some that will be Sarah Palin, but I’d say that the 2-hour performance was a gilt-edged invitation to Rick Perry to join the field and command the stage.