The two clear winners in the GOP debate hosted Monday night in New Hampshire were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Political debates are all about expectations. Mitt Romney had more than anyone to lose. Michele Bachmann had more than anyone to gain. Romney deftly fended off attacks particularly on health care, and Bachmann proved she's smart and credible, and has every right to be on the stage.
The rest were window dressing.
While former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum leapt out forcefully for a question or two, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proved the depth of his knowledge, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas got lapped.
Bachmann: Needed to be prove herself ready to lead. She did that, and more. Stellar, crisp, engaging debut.
Cain: Needed to prove he was deeper than platitudes; regain ground lost on foreign policy issues. Still needs work.
Gingrich: Needed to prove he is still capable of running after a very public vote of no confidence by his staff. He may not be able to organize a campaign, but he can still organize his thoughts.
Paul: Needed to prove broader appeal. Didn't. Still a libertarian crank. But a principled and consistent crank.
Pawlenty: Needed to prove he is more than just a strong number two. Looked like a number two tonight. And looked weak when he failed to follow up on his attacks on Romney. He had a big slow pitch and he bunted.
Romney: Needed to prove he deserves front-runner status. He did. Strongly defended his health care plan. No one laid a glove on him.
Santorum: Needed to prove he is more than the social conservative label. Still his greatest strength.
While the field of seven jockeyed for the right position, another storyline was also playing out off stage: Who was not there?
Mitt Romney had more than anyone to lose. Michele Bachmann had more than anyone to gain.
Of the 13 official and unofficial candidates initially invited to debate by CNN, three have since withdrawn from the race (Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and real estate mogul Donald Trump). While Trump succeeded in damaging the credibility of his campaign and never really left the gate, the loss of Daniels and Huckabee created huge openings through the center and to the outside right. While the seven on stage looked to fill those slots, the three who declined to participate—former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—by holding back may pose a real threat to the pack. Unfortunately, the debate media hosts chose to not invite former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson or former Louisiana congressman and Gov. Buddy Roemer, who is one of the most talented debaters in politics.
Of course, the latest dark horse yet to enter, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, may change the odds all over again.