Recap: Bachmann rocks CNN GOP presidential debate

MANCHESTER, NH — Between the tweets (often far funnier and more insightful than the candidates’ comments!), the chatter (a constant eavesdropping temptation) and a certain delicious marinated chicken sandwich (thank you, CNN!), I confess I was a little distracted last night in the media room. But it seems every time I found myself spellbound by the debate screen, I was staring at Rep. Michele Bachmann. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also deserves the mentions he’ll undoubtedly receive: On almost every subject, he spoke even more deftly than expected.

I’m not alone in my assessment. An early National Journal insider poll shows politicos favoring Romney and Bachmann by large pluralities:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made the best impression among Republican political operatives, campaign consultants, and party strategists during the first half of the CNN GOP New Hampshire presidential debate according to a special National Journal Political Insiders Poll conducted while the debate was in progress. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was also off to a good start.

Insiders were asked, “In the first half of the debate, which candidate impressed you the most?” Among the 52 GOP Insiders who responded, 42 percent said that Romney had impressed the most and 31 percent said Bachmann had.

Among the 43 Democratic Insiders who responded, 38 percent of them said Bachmann had been the most impressive while 28 percent said Romney was.

Some tweeters have already dismissed this positive view of Romney and Bachmann as “conventional wisdom” or a reflection of some kind of RINO ideology. But I don’t think that’s fair. As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein (someone with whom I very rarely agree!) put it on Twitter: “Romney’s polish was perhaps to be expected. But Bachmann is much newer to politics than much of the field. Her ease is impressive.” Even if it might represent conventional wisdom to laud Romney, to recognize Bachmann as a top performer tonight is just to speak truth. She nailed the fiscal issues (here, her comments bore particular credibility because of the uncompromising position she occupied during the TARP debate). She nailed the social issues with rousing references to God-given inalienable rights and to states’ prerogative to determine certain policies. She even nailed the opportunity she was given in the lightning foreign policy round.

Her message resonated because, as her spokeswoman Alice Stewart put it, “she knows what people are talking about at the breakfast table.” It seems she really does.

That’s not to say she deserves no criticism. At times, she pandered. She announced her presidential announcement — and not even in her introductory remarks, but after the first question. She touted the introduction of bills as definitive accomplishments. (She’s right to mention her repeal bills — just not to make them sound filed and finished). She turned a tender and precious personal accomplishment into somewhat of a talking point.

But, by and large, she demonstrated the poise for which she should be known. Now that I think about it, it’s actually a little surprising her performance tonight comes as a surprise: When, at Tea Party rallies or on the House floor, has she not been relatively eloquent?

That’s the catch, though: The debate revealed Romney’s refinement and Bachmann’s sparkle. It reduced the rest of the candidates to a cluster of individuals for whom cliched descriptions of tonight’s performance are sufficient (so much so that I don’t even want to do the conventional rundown and reduce still-solid candidates who merely underperformed last night to words like “underwhelming,” “vague,” or “a little better/worse than last time’). But the splashy CNN debate format, insufficient answer time and shortchanging of substantive questions ensured viewers learned little else of worth to distinguish the candidates from one another than who performed best under pressure.

Debates alone can’t and won’t determine the GOP nominee (hate to say it, but plenty of pragmatic factors are still at issue — money, experience and again with the electability), but the spectacle was still an enjoyable one — not least because, in terms of the policy answers the candidates did give, the GOP field tonight revealed itself to be anything but a weak one.