If you ask me for order of finish, I’d say Romney, Bachmann, and Santorum for the medals, with the rest interchangeably lagging. Romney was the most polished by far. Sometimes over-polished, as is his way, but he was much improved over 2008, when he was in fact pretty bad at this. His defense of his health-care plan was surprisingly strong and sharp, and I was surprised that he was challenged on it just once. Bachmann is smarter on policy than most people think, and she made good use of the minutes allotted to her. Santorum mostly trotted out tried and true platitudes (Obama has “embraced our enemies”), but at least he looked like he belonged up there.
Tim Pawlenty was the night’s loser. He made an interesting and surprising contrast to Santorum in this regard. He seemed like somebody’s younger brother who was tagging along, and he just didn’t look like he fit. He hit a self-righteous stride talking about bombing Yemen—then you realized that all he was doing was saying that he’ll continue Obama’s policy! Herman Cain disappointed me. I’d thought that he would demonstrate the freedom that fringe candidates have to say what they really think, but what he really thinks turns out to be not of the remotest interest. Maybe this is unfair, but Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich both looked old—Paul in his ill-fitting suit, Gingrich carrying that jowly girth that someone should have forced him to shed ages ago. True to form, he did deliver the most demagogic moment of the night, referring to the “Obama Depression.”
For the most part: Lots of easy shots at Obama on jobs and the economy, to which they’re perfectly entitled, given the latest jobs numbers, but not much in the way of ideas except cut taxes more and shrink government more. But those are the Republican ideas, period. If the economy is still this bad in November 2012, it will resonate. If it’s improved, no one outside the base will care.