Fox News wanted to look for questions to ask and for ways to ask them which would make the candidates engage on the stage. As one Fox exec put it, "We know they want to throw punches at Obama, we want to see how they mix it up with each other."
On the flight from Washington to Des Moines, I wrote down what I thought each candidate needed to do, might do, should do, etc. As I watched the debate I took notes and distilled what I believe I saw to a paragraph. Keep in mind, I watched this from the hall. You watched it on TV. We saw two different programs.
Winners & Losers:
Bachmann won by holding her own. Romney won by staying above the fray (even in the face of glancing attacks by Bachmann and Pawlenty). Pawlenty and Huntsman lost because they didn't gain any ground.
Here's the summary:
Romney - PRE: He needs to get out of his four-corner-offense. This is the time to show what he's got. Obama's re-election team has decided Romney's the guy they're going to run against so Romney has to show he and his team can go toe-to-toe with them.
POST: He burnished his creds as a knowledgeable businessman. In fact his answers often smacked of a powerpoint presentation at Harvard Business School. He was cool, informed, and appeared comfortable.
Bachmann - PRE: Doesn't have to do MUCH more than she did in New Hampshire,. She's much better trained, having been on the campaign trail for six weeks than she was in NH but, on the other hand, but doesn't get the benefit of surprise. She has shown a capacity for misstatements which she will obviously have to avoid, and will have to fend off attacks without looking flakey.
POST: She and Pawlenty got into a hissing match over what was in a bill to raise cigarette taxes. She won that debate-within-a-debate. Other than a few cases where she lapsed into campaign rally-speak, she held up very well.
Pawlenty - PRE: Oh-and-two count against him. If he goes down, he needs to go down swinging. He's been at this for 18 months and is sitting down among the has-beens (Gingrich) and never weres (Cain and Santorum). If he doesn't make a move tonight it will reflect on his performance Saturday - his supporters simply won't get on the buses to come to Ames.
POST: Went after Romney gently. Took roundhouses at Bachmann, twice. He has decided to go after Bachmann with a "fighting and losing isn't the goal; fighting and winning is the goal" argument.
Huntsman - PRE: Got off to a shaky start and hasn't altered the trajectory of his campaign since. This is the first "big" event since his announcement and he has to show potential donors and supporters he is up to this. His laid-back style might work, but being Perry Como on a stage with the Rolling Stones will present difficulties for him to show his stuff.
POST: Answered the questions easily, but without passion. Move over, Mr. Como.
Cain - He must be better prepared for this debate than he was for NH when he had no clue how to answer a question about Afghanistan and berated Muslims at every opportunity. He must present himself to be more than an interesting anomaly - a Republican, Black, businessman.
POST: He was more engaging and more at ease than he was in the previous debate, but didn't convince me he knows enough about public policy to be a serious candidate.
Gingrich - PRE: What can you say? He's bumping along in the polls in single digits. His campaign didn't have enough money to pay to join the straw poll ballot. He has nothing to lose and little to gain.
POST: Lost his temper over a question about the state of his campaign, but Gingrich is smart and proved he knows how the Congress works better than anyone else on the stage.
Santorum - PRE: There isn't much he can do to either improve his position from being in the shallow end of the poll pool and, because he's at three or four percent, there isn't much downside risk. He's on the stage and that should be enough for him because he's not going anywhere in this campaign.
POST: He was on the stage, but was more-or-less the invisible man. Not his fault, but he simply doesn't have the standing to compete at this level.
Paul - PRE: Say what you will about Ron Paul, but he has a core of supporters who are extremely (used advisedly) loyal to him. He will repeat his well-worn positions without being smug and without being shy. I look for him to finish in the top three on Saturday.
POST: Had the most vocal supporters who lustily cheered every answer. He is a compelling debater and knows his stuff, but he should be a radio show host on Radio Free Libertarians, not President of the United States.