"These debates do have winners," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Neil King in that paper's "Washington Wire" column last night after keeping up a running commentary on the GOP gathering in Orlando.
"And more than any other contest so far this year," King continued, "this has a clear one: Romney, hands down."
King's opinion was shared by other MSMers including Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post and Time's Mark Halperin.
"In each of the five debates, we’ve named Romney a winner," Cilizza wrote in his post-debate wrap-up. "But, it’s hard to argue with the performance he gave tonight — particularly in the second hour of the debate where he was steady, presidential and, gasp, funny," he concluded.
Halperin gave Romney the only "A" grade of the night, with Rick Santorum gathering a B+ and the rest of the field at C or lower.
The MSMers matter especially to the tone of the national coverage as the campaign heads into the next three week period, a break from the debate march that has seen the candidates repeatedly clash over the past few weeks. (The candidates don't gather again until October 11, at Dartmouth College. The complete debate schedule is here.)
During this period of time the MSM especially will refine and repeat a set of observations that will become assumptions, assumptions that can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The first is that Mitt Romney is by far the most skilled and prepared debater of the GOP group, and that his message and team are most ready for prime time and thus to defeat a sitting president, never an easy task. Romney's surge in New Hampshire represents the sort of data point that points to genuine momentum among early voters in a key state, the sort of move that happens when the fence-sitters start to get off and pick sides.